Category Archives: the Right

TCM 3 – When the government falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1970 Change of government due to GOVERNMENT DECLINE and OPPOSITION STRENGTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, Scotland…

The times they are hard

I sing Peter Bellamy’s “Us poor fellows” at singarounds occasionally; if you want, you can hear me singing it here. It usually goes down pretty well; it feels like a song for our times – which is a bit disconcerting when you consider that the character singing it was hanged for burglary shortly afterwards. On one occasion a friend commented that the song was unusually left-wing for Bellamy, which got me thinking: is it a left-wing song? (I’m pretty sure Bellamy didn’t think it was.) Could it be sung by a right-winger? If not, what would a right-wing song sound like?

Here are the lyrics of the song, if you don’t know it. If you do, you may as well skip to the post immediately below. Continue reading

and the wages are poor

In many ways this doesn’t look like a particularly left-wing song. Look at the second verse:

If we could find labour we ne’er would complain
We’d work well for a master his favour to gain
We’d be honest and faithful with never a stain

It’s not exactly “Solidarity Forever”, is it? Right Argument 1: Workers Want to Serve. (Or else “workers should want to serve” – or possibly “workers want to serve, deep down“.) Then:

a man with a family, his hands they are tied
He must look to their comfort or lose all his pride

And:

it breaks his poor heart for to see his wife cry
So, poor fellow, he’ll do what he can
… he’ll turn out and rob,
Poor fellow, to prove he’s a man.

Right Arguments 2a and 2b: A Man Needs His Pride and Men Are The Breadwinners. (These weren’t radical or unusual arguments in the 1780s, when the action of the song was set; they were still very much the common sense of the age. But they certainly aren’t left arguments.)

Then some thoughts about crime:

If a good man goes robbing, you know it’s a shame
He brings scorn and misfortune on his honest name

Right Arguments 3a and 3b: Respectability Is Valuable and Crime Is Shameful.

And the big finish:

let’s hope that these hard times will soon pass away
And unto our sweet Saviour we earnestly pray
That this dark cloudy morn brings a glorious day

Opening with a nod to the traditional song Hard Times of Old England, these lines preach religiously-justified passivity. Right Argument 4: The Lord Will Provide (Because We Can’t).

To be fair, there are a few lines in the song which seem to be making ‘left-wing’ arguments. On inspection there are two main arguments, each with two sub-claims. There’s an argument about unemployment:

So how can a good man keep the wolf from the door?
Poor fellows, we all will go down.
When work it is scarce, tell me, how can we eat?
How can we afford to buy shoes for our feet?

Sometimes people are out of work because there is no work, or not enough work. And we can’t assume the existence of some Darwinian struggle guaranteeing that the scarce jobs go to the best people: sometimes good people suffer, through no fault of their own, because the jobs aren’t there. So here’s Left Argument 1a: Unemployment is Real. (Also, in the ‘shoes’ line, another nod to Hard Times of Old England.)

We could plough the good land, we could fish the salt sea
We could work in the woodland a-felling of trees

Anyone who’s ever been unemployed or under-employed – a group which included Peter Bellamy – can identify with this couplet: there’s stuff I could do! (“Gizza job. I could do that.”) Left Argument 1b: Unemployment has Social Costs.

Then there’s an argument about crime:

a man that is desperate and can’t find a job
He will not be contented to sit home and sob:
Be he never so honest, he’ll turn out and rob

Crime isn’t only committed by people dedicated to dishonesty: an honest man may be driven to it. So that’s Left Argument 2a: Crime has Social Causes.

The fourth claim ties the two arguments together:

If a good man goes robbing, you know it’s a shame
He brings scorn and misfortune on his honest name
But in pitiful straits, tell me, who is to blame?

Left Argument 2b: Poverty Reduces Blame.

In short, this is a left-wing song inasmuch as it argues that the economy sometimes denies people a job; that this has bad results for them and for society, including a rise in crime; and that, in the circumstances, some of those responsible for the rise in crime aren’t entirely to blame.

On the other hand, it’s a right-wing song inasmuch as it argues for subservience at work, patriarchal dominance at home, respectability and rejection of crime, and pious fatalism.

Three thoughts come to mind. Firstly, it seems to me that those right-wing values are a lot more fundamental than the supposedly left-wing ones. Whether crime may sometimes be promoted by economic conditions is very much a secondary question compared with the questions of whether workers should “work well for a master, his favour to gain”; whether a man should be seen (and see himself) as the head of the household; whether criminality is always shameful; and whether improvements to collective conditions can be left in the hands of the Almighty. This is not surprising: Peter Bellamy had a long-running disagreement with those folk singers who claimed to have excavated a radical tradition of working-class song, maintaining that the huge majority of traditional songs about work celebrate working conditions and wish the master well. This is, in part, his tribute to that tradition.

Secondly, I think it’s arguable that the left-wing arguments aren’t actually left-wing at all, in two senses. To say that a capitalist economy doesn’t guarantee full employment – and that it is indifferent to the personal worth of the people it periodically throws out of work – is not a left-wing argument, or any sort of argument; from my limited understanding of economics, it’s basically a statement of fact. To say that social conditions temper effective freedom of choice, again, isn’t so much a left-wing argument as common sense. On the other hand to say that, when freedom is reduced, blame for wrongdoing should also be reduced isn’t a left-wing argument but a compassionate one. What this song demonstrates, in other words, is that it’s possible to combine a highly conservative worldview – in which respectable working men serve their masters, provide for their families and have no aspirations to bring about social change – with economic realism and compassion. I think they used to call this combination ‘Toryism’.

But (thirdly) if that’s the case, what are we saying when we say that this sounds like a left-wing song? I think this tells us something about what ‘right-wing’ means these days. It suggests that ‘right-wing’ means looking at unemployment through a stigmatising mythology of the deserving and undeserving poor, instead of from the perspective of economic realism, and looking at law-breakers as criminal types who deserve only punishment, rather than trying to extend compassionate understanding to them. In short, it means allowing the pleasures of class warfare to take precedence over rationality and humanity, to say nothing of the effective reduction of crime and the management of the business cycle.

In conclusion, let’s hope that… well, these hard times are going to be with us for a while, particularly given that the present government plainly regards promoting economic growth as less important than assuring its own survival. But let’s hope that by the end of the year Labour, at least, has a leader who doesn’t believe in dealing with unemployment by attacking the unemployed, or dealing with crime by making convicted criminals suffer – and who, unlike the previous leader, believes in stating his or her beliefs clearly and without equivocation. It wouldn’t make Labour a left-wing party, and it probably wouldn’t take them any nearer to power – but it would represent an act of moral and intellectual hygiene which is long overdue.

PPS

I said all I had to say about the Liberal Democrats after the 2010 election; it wasn’t complimentary. But that was five long years ago; tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis, or at least political realities change with them. So I was hardly surprised to read that some people were canvassing a merger between the Liberal Democrats and Labour – the party the Lib Dems have spent the last five years denouncing, that is, as distinct from the party they worked with quite happily for four years and eleven months. Nor was I surprised to see Nick rejecting this idea as ridiculous, which indeed it is. What did surprise me was Nick’s seeming confidence that, rather than seek a merger, Lib Dems could work with Labour productively without a formal alliance – in very much the same way that they did circa 1997-2001 – and indeed that this was a viable strategy now. Nick’s post title sums it up nicely: “Merging Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be a bad idea, working together wouldn’t be”.

I left a long and rather angry comment, which on second reading turned out to be missing a bit of argumentative connective tissue: I knew what I was trying to say, but the combination of grumpiness and self-imposed brevity made the delivery a bit telegraphic. So here it is again, with some of the detail filled in. Quotes are from Nick’s post.

I’m not saying that any agreement could be accomplished easily or quickly, but ruling it out entirely only plays into the Tories’ hands … Yes, we’ll all have to sit through shouts of ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘Health and Social Care Act’ (whilst we shout ‘illegal war’ and ‘ID cards’ back, of course) but shouldn’t we at least see if something’s possible without ruling it out without even discussing it?

Personally I think you’ll have to sit through shouts of “after making five years of Tory government possible and laying the groundwork for another five, are you kidding?”. David Cameron’s first premiership, secure in its majority of 70, wouldn’t have happened if the Lib Dems hadn’t made it happen. While the Lib Dems may have reined the Tories in on some occasions, the inevitable effect of five years under a Tory Prime Minister was to detoxify the image of Conservatism and shift political common sense their way – look at the prevalence of deficit fetishism across the media, the BBC very much included. From a Labour supporter’s standpoint, the Lib Dems are carrying a great deal of baggage and have a lot of credibility to make up; they’re in the political wilderness now, and for the time being that’s just where they belong. Labour has a problematic relationship with its own past, for more or less any value of ‘past’; the Labour leadership contest is largely being fought out over the question of just how much of the past to repudiate and how emphatically. That’s pretty unattractive, but next to the (putative) Lib Dem strategy of simply handwaving the past away it’s a model of responsibility.

assume a country with four parties (A,B,C, and D) that exist broadly as two blocs – A and B would usually work together in government, as would C and D, but a combination other than those two would be very unlikely. Now, imagine that A gets 30% of the vote, B 25%, C 40% and D 5%. In a proportional system, A and B can compete freely with each other and most likely would over the 5% of voters that would determine which of them is the largest party. However, their combined 55% of seats would put them into power. … In a system like ours, though, we instead have a situation where A and B competing only benefits C, unless large chunks of B voters can be persuaded to switch to A (or vice versa).

A and B competing didn’t benefit C six weeks ago, as I remember. A turned out to be shrewd, unscrupulous and powerful, and took nearly half of B’s seats. It was B colluding with A that nearly destroyed them. In June 2010 I described the Lib Dems as a “shabby, unprincipled, Tory-tailing rabble”; the Lib Dems in government occasionally did something to reverse that opinion, but they did much more to confirm and entrench it. Come 2015 Labour voters were never going to vote for them (again). As for Tory voters (and Lib Dem voters in Tory marginals), I suspect that many of them felt there was no reason to vote Lib Dem any more. As the government kept reminding us, things seemed to be working out OK with a Tory Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Maybe this was down to the Lib Dems exerting a moderating influence in the margins and behind the scenes, but then again, maybe the Tories weren’t as bad as all that; they certainly weren’t so bad that the Lib Dems couldn’t work with them.

Will a major party alliance – formal or informal – always act to destroy the Lib Dems’ identity as a party? Could it be different for the Lib Dems if they allied with Labour? It’s true that the 1997 and 2001 elections worked out rather well for the Lib Dems, but that was a lot more than a tactical alliance. There’s a case for seeing the alliance between Ashdown and Blair as the culmination of the entire history of the post-Lloyd George Liberal Party. Certainly from the time of the first Liberal leader I can remember (Jeremy Thorpe, hélas), the party’s position was always somewhere between ‘leftish-with-qualifications’ and ‘equidistant, whatever that means’. (The genius of Charles Kennedy’s leadership was to position the party on the left of New Labour, as ‘Labourish-with-left-qualifications’. No wonder the knives were out for him.)

By comparison, the Orange Book swerve – which led ultimately to the Coalition – has no roots to speak of: the book itself was only published in 2004. Of course, it could be argued that, in looking leftwards again, the party was resuming its historic direction of march after an unfortunate deviation from course, but politics doesn’t really work that way – not for those of us with a memory longer than a couple of months. To reverse ferret at this stage and say “you know what? it turns out we were equidistant from the two main parties after all!” wouldn’t exactly carry conviction. In any case, the success of the Ashdown strategy for the Lib Dems – and the extent to which the party stayed out of a decaying orbit around the Labour Party – can be overstated. While informal co-operation among Labour and Lib Dem voters in 1997 did work out well for the Lib Dems, it worked out really quite stupendously well for Labour – so much so that they felt they could pretty much ignore the Lib Dems from then on (exhibit A: the Jenkins Commission).

I can’t see any good outcome for the Lib Dems at the moment: staying with the Tories would be suicidal, but looking to Labour would evince heroic levels of chutzpah (and not in a good way). The third option – ‘equidistant’ independence – is a lonely, powerless and potentially self-destructive place: the question ‘what’s this party for?’ would be heard around the land. But maybe that question needs asking.

The moral is that history matters (perhaps especially on the Left). And that duopolies are hard to break – perhaps particularly hard from the centre. (Even the SNP – who really are a centre party – didn’t actually campaign from the centre.)

Cap in hand (3)

The story so far: in the last three parliaments there were 80, 92 and 85 MPs who were neither Tory nor Labour; there looks like being a similar number in the next parliament, albeit differently constituted (more SNP, fewer Lib Dems). In the absence of a landslide somebody is going to have to ally with someone. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems are claiming that the party forming the next government should be the largest single party, and that doing otherwise would somehow lack stability or legitimacy. There is no historical or constitutional justification for this, and it looks as if they’re just saying it in the hope of giving the Coalition another five years, even if a Labour-led government could have a bigger majority and (consequently) be more stable.

That’s where we were up to last weekend. Then things got worse, with the outgoing Home Secretary’s extraordinary intervention in the Mail on Sunday. Now, the political stance of the Mail newspapers has never been what you could call impartial; ‘nuanced’ is another word that doesn’t spring to mind. But over the last couple of weeks they really have thrown caution to the winds; you could be forgiven for thinking they were being guest-edited by Chris Morris. ‘Red Ed’ is proposing “Stalinist” policies; a new hospital – in evil socialist Scotland – is “Nicola’s Death Star”. (To be fair, the ‘death star’ nickname is being used locally, on the basis that the building’s sort of star-shaped (it actually looks more like a Space Invader). But “new hospital: bad thing” genuinely is what the story is saying; ‘Fury-new-1bn-super-hospital-Glasgow‘ says the URL.) Perhaps most bizarrely of all, the Daily Mail has put its name to the statement that immigration is “being totally ignored by the main parties”: “the subject that dare not speak its name … has been all but air-brushed from the election”. To the extent that this leader column says anything at all, it seems to be complaining that nobody is actually campaigning on a platform of sending the buggers back; Labour’s promise to clamp down on the exploitation of cheap migrant labour is dismissed as a sop to the party’s “union paymasters”, a comment which is headbangingly stupid, scarily authoritarian or both (don’t come in here with your pinko commie supply and demand, we want men in uniforms and we want ’em now).

So you don’t go to the Mail newspapers for a cool draught of disinterested rationality – not at the best of times, and certainly not now. But even by those standards Theresa May’s statement last Sunday was something else.

Mrs May told The Mail on Sunday: ‘If we saw a Labour Government propped up by SNP it could be the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication. It would mean Scottish MPs who have no responsibility for issues like health, education and policing in their own constituencies [as they are devolved to the Scottish Parliament] making decisions on those issues for England and Wales. Rightly, people in England would say, “hang on a minute, why are Scottish Nationalist MPs allowed to do that?”‘

Two separate claims are being confused here. I’m not sure if May would want to stand by both of them, or even if she was aware that they were separate claims. (Since ‘catgate‘ my opinion of our former Home Secretary hasn’t been high.) I’ll disentangle them anyway. First, the devolution question. So Mary Smith, MP for Moray, Forth and Orkney votes in Parliament to cut the police budget and spend more money on primary healthcare – or vice versa – despite not having any responsibility for those issues in her own constituency. Does this matter, and if so why? There is a genuine and longstanding question – the ‘West Lothian’ question – about the capacity of Scottish (and Welsh) MPs to vote, after devolution, on matters solely or mainly affecting England, but opinions differ as to how serious it is; May’s apparent belief that it is very serious indeed is not widely shared. The SNP isn’t an abstentionist party, and May isn’t suggesting that Smith wouldn’t turn up – quite the reverse. It seems reasonable to assume that when the voters of M, F and O elected Smith to the UK Parliament, they were voting for an MP who would represent their views for the UK as a whole and take part in Parliamentary discussions about the governance of the UK – including the governance of England.

In any case, if Smith was democratically elected, and if the MSPs for Moray, Forth and Orkney are also democratically elected, it would all come out in the wash: the same voters would vote for parties putting forward the same policies, whether they got to implement those policies within the constituency or not. If anything, of course, the Scottish Parliament is more democratically representative, being elected under PR. (The three main UK parties are currently projected to get 5 Scottish seats between them (out of 59), on 45% of the vote. Seats the three parties currently hold at Holyrood: 58 out of 129, or 45%.) This doesn’t affect the main point: there is no reason to imagine that the voters of Moray, Forth and Orkney would vote for positive, responsible policy agenda A when electing Mr Brown, MSP for Moray, Ms Wilson (Forth) and Mr Robertson (Orkney), and then vote for bad, dangerous policy agenda B when electing their Westminster MP (Ms Smith).

The only way this could possibly work would be if Smith, Brown, Wilson and Robertson were actually all advancing the same agenda – one that’s positive for Scotland but bad and dangerous for the UK. And, it turns out, this is actually what May is suggesting. The West Lothian question is a red herring; as the last sentence quoted above suggests, it’s only a problem if Scottish Nationalist MPs are voting in Westminster on matters affecting the rest of the UK. By implication, it would still be a problem in the absence of devolution: if serious ‘West Lothian’ issues are being raised by the stance of a political party – rather than the vagaries of individual MPs’ voting behaviour – then that party’s position must be bad for England as well as being good for Scotland. And if that’s the case, they’re going to be a bad influence at Westminster whether Scotland has a devolved assembly or not.

There’s an obvious problem here: once you’ve set up an electoral system, you’ve got to accept the results it gives you. If it’s possible and legal for the SNP to stand candidates, then it has to be possible for SNP MPs to be elected; if the people of Moray, Forth and Orkney have elected an SNP MP, they’re going to be represented by someone who votes in accordance with SNP policy. And this is not a problem: it’s how the system works, just as it worked – exactly as it worked – when the people of Maidenhead voted to elect a Tory. May doesn’t seem to accept this.

‘Miliband would be in government on the coat-tails of Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. They would be calling the tune – people who don’t want the UK to exist and want to destroy our country. There would be a very real feeling was this was something people did not want to see, had not voted for and would find very difficult to accept. It would raise difficult questions about legitimacy. A lot of English people would question that.’

A Labour/SNP alliance would be “something people did not want to see [and] had not voted for”. That’s something you could say about a lot of post-election alliances; you could certainly say it about the 2010 alliance between the Conservatives and the party that won 23% of the vote opposing economic austerity and tuition fees. But this is much worse, because it’s the SNP: “people who don’t want the UK to exist “. “A lot of English people” would question a Labour/SNP alliance; it would “raise difficult questions about legitimacy”.

Again with the L-word! This talk of legitimacy is alarming: it suggests that we could run an election according to the rules, form a government according to the Cabinet Manual (pdf), and still end up with a government that wasn’t valid in some undefined way – or rather, with a powerful and vocal lobby denouncing the government as invalid. It’s astonishingly arrogant – who gave May, or Cameron, or Clegg the right to pronounce on whether an elected government should be allowed to exist? – and frankly dangerous: it’s the kind of thing that gets people talking seriously about coups.

It’s also, frankly, stupid. Let’s say we pass a ruling that a party demanding independence from the UK can’t be a vital part of a government of the UK – can’t supply the MPs necessary for a second party to get a majority (this seems to be what May wants, or at least the result she wants to bring about). Then what? What about three-  or four-party coalitions – should we debar the secessionists from those as well? Better had – otherwise one of the other parties might defect and leave them holding the balance of power after all. Similarly, of course, nationalists should be debarred from any kind of opposition alliance or understanding between parties – you never know when the wheel might turn and put the opposition in power, and we’d be back where we started. What about hung parliaments and votes of confidence – should we bar the nationalists from taking part? Otherwise their vote might be crucial to the survival of the government, which is just what we wanted to avoid. But then there are all the other votes which help a government survive, or undermine it if they are lost – can we afford to put the survival of the government’s prestige and reputation in the hands of the nationalists? And so on. The only way May’s logic will work is if we bar the nationalists from voting at all, or else from standing for Parliament in the first place – or if we excluded their nation from Parliament altogether. Perhaps the word isn’t ‘stupid’ after all; perhaps it’s just dangerous.

In part 4: what on earth are the Labour Party doing?

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.

Cap in hand (1)

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

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

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

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

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 18.08.57

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

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

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 18.10.23

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

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

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 20.23.09

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

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

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

(Some answers in part two.)

You know how it is

I want Labour to win this election, but they’re not exactly going all out for my vote at the moment. I learned this morning, courtesy of Obsolete, that Labour stand for sending people to prison for possession of drugs for personal use – at least, they attack the Lib Dems for not supporting this policy. I wouldn’t say it’s having the opposite of the intended effect: never mind a nose peg, you’d have to stuff my nose with garlic, coat my eyes with butter and fill my ears with silver (and the rest) to make me vote Lib Dem. But Labour certainly aren’t calling me home.

This, of course, comes on top of That Mug. Now, being a pedant to my bones – and having worked for a publishing and events company – my immediate reaction to this story was to point out tetchily that it wasn’t a matter of one mug; we were talking about Those Mugs plural, which is to say That Marketing Strategy for Those Pledges plural. But, if anything, this makes matters even worse for Labour: if “why that mug?” was a good question, “why that pledge?” is an even better one. If the Labour Party, going into an election it needs to win, wants to highlight five pledges – five commitments encapsulating what the party will do in government – why on earth should one of them be ‘Controls on immigration’? (Particularly since our membership of the EU makes controlling EU immigration extremely problematic, as everyone involved knows perfectly well.)

Paul Bernal has an excellent list of alternative pledges. Any one of them would be an improvement; in fact, I think Paul’s pledges 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7 would make good replacements for all five of Labour’s. An interesting discussion of the ‘immigration’ pledge itself – and its importance to the voters – has also developed in the comments box. Since I’m one of the main participants, I’ll continue it over here. It began with a comment on the salience – and relative visibility (or at least audibility) – of Eastern European migrants, as distinct from those who have come to Britain from the New Commonwealth. (And with whom UKIP, and others playing the migration card, are of course absolutely fine; the new anti-migration politics is not racist in any way, shape or form. Mostly.) Here’s the comment:

One other point, white migrants from Eastern Europe locally stand out because they are white and quite often not speaking English amongst themselves. We are used to people of non white descent speaking languages other than English to the point where it goes almost unnoticed and unremarked.

In response, I pulled out this quote from the papers in 2010, when Thatcher’s 1979 obiter dicta in Cabinet became available under the 30-year rule.

[In July 1979, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher] said that “with some exceptions there had been no humanitarian case for accepting 1.5 million immigrants from south Asia and elsewhere. It was essential to draw a line somewhere”. [Deputy Prime Minister] Mr Whitelaw entered the debate, suggesting to the prime minister that refugees were a different matter to immigrants in general. He said that according to letters he had received, opinion favoured the accepting of more of the Vietnamese refugees. Lady Thatcher responded that “in her view all those who wrote letters in this sense should be invited to accept one into their homes” … “She thought it quite wrong that immigrants should be given council housing whereas white citizens were not.”

Lady Thatcher asked what the implications of such a move could be given that an exodus of the white population from Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – was expected once majority rule was established. She made clear, however, that she had “less objection to refugees such as Rhodesians, Poles and Hungarians, since they could more easily be assimilated into British society”.

Emphasis added.

(In passing – “all those who wrote letters in this sense should be invited to accept one into their homes”! Stay classy, Margaret.)

So in 1979 it’s obvious that Asians are harder to assimilate than Poles – they’re not White!
And in 2015 it’s obvious that Poles are harder to assimilate than Asians – they’re not non-White!

My interlocutor replied:

I am not condoning these attitudes, but seeking to understand and explain them. I am afraid the migration is wonderful (stick your fingers in your ears) etc approach will not change hearts and minds, unless those advocating it address the concerns of those not sharing that view.

Perception is reality, even if there is very little evidence to support that perception. And you are not going to change the perception by saying let us have uncontrolled migration.

Which raises the question of how an evidence-free perception can be changed – not with evidence, presumably. I thought about this a bit more and came up with the following, which (as you can see) got too long for a comment box.

Thinking some more about this notion of ‘real concerns’ which underlie expressions of racism, there are two points I’d make. First off, there is a very general tendency to be prejudiced against people who are Not Like Us, particularly if those people are in a minority and visibly (or audibly!) different. Most of us outgrow these feelings, recognise them as unworthy or at worst learn to repress them; more importantly, most of us have life experiences which tell us on a personal level that ‘those people’ are Like Us, that some of ‘them’ are Us. (All the more so in recent decades – my son had more non-White friends at school than I ever did; come to think of it, more than I ever have.) But some people never have those experiences, aren’t very reflective or generous-minded and don’t mix with people who are, and those people will have a genuine, personal, emotional reaction to the arrival of more of ‘those people’. (My grandmother, God rest her, went to her grave convinced that Indian cooking was ‘dirty’. “She probably thinks the brown comes off their fingers,” my mother said.) I don’t know what’s to be done about people like that, except for God’s sake not to encourage them. They do not have very real concerns. Their views are not valid. Yes, there was a time when we all used those words. No, you can’t say those things any more. Good.

Secondly, at the moment I live in an area with very real pressure on services. The local primary school, an Edwardian structure with ‘BOYS’ picked out in stonework over one of the entrances, recently put on a third year-group (i.e. an expansion in capacity of 50%), with extensive new building to accommodate it (they essentially built another school on top of the school); getting a doctor’s appointment has been a pain for a while, but following a recent reorganisation it’s now a pain and a half. What does this tell me? The expansion of the school tells me that pressure on services can be met with an expansion of service provision. The reorganisation of the health centre tells me that if service provision doesn’t expand in response to pressure (perhaps being subjected to a half-arsed reorganisation instead), that’s the problem. What doesn’t occur to me – genuinely doesn’t occur to me, any more than it would occur to me to wear shorts to work – is to blame the people who have moved into the area.

This, clearly, is what’s going on when people voice their very real concerns, so it may be worth establishing why it is that I don’t do it. It may be because I’ve no idea who those incomers are, or even if there is any identifiable group of incomers (people may have stopped moving out; older people may have died and younger people, with families, moved into their old homes; there are a variety of possible scenarios). It may be because I’m a well-meaning Guardian reader, or – relating back to the first point – that I’ve been socialised to beware of prejudice and to try and make sure my beliefs are supported by evidence. But I think the most important factor – my most important value in this respect – is the conviction that you don’t kick down. If someone’s in the same boat as you – or even worse off than you – you may not extend a friendly hand; you may not particularly like them or want them around you. But you don’t blame them for what’s wrong with the world. This seems like basic common sense to me: politically speaking, there are people running things (stop me if I get too technical), and if things are running badly it’s basically going to be their fault, by and large. Down here at ground level – down among the wage slaves and the ‘consumers’ – the way things are is basically not our fault, except in the sense that we’re all perpetuating an unjust system through wage labour and commodity consumption; and in a Marxist perspective even that’s scarcely our fault, morally speaking. If the people in power screw things up, somebody in a position of power needs to put them right. If there’s not enough to go round, you demand more for everyone; if there’s not enough room in the lifeboats, you demand more lifeboats (or equal shares in what lifeboats there are). This, I think, is what was both wrong & deeply right about the Lindsey wildcat strike – the one that had the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ hung on it (mostly, it has to be said, by non-participants). To say that British jobs should, in general, be reserved for British workers is to blame the (foreign) workers for the competition they introduce. What the Lindsey strikers actually attacked – correctly – was the bosses’ action in importing an entire workforce, unilaterally removing a source of employment from workers living in Britain (and, incidentally, imposing differential pay rates). Workers are not the problem; deprivation of work is the problem, and it’s not the workers who are doing that. Immigrants are not the problem; service shortages are the problem, and it’s not the immigrants who are creating them.

How to address the concerns of people who want to see controls on immigration (and who, presumably, will be more likely to vote Labour if the party offers them)? Tell them they’ve forgotten something very important: you don’t kick down. (I say ‘forgotten’; they may never have known it in the first place, but it’s kinder not to remind them.) It’s not about well-meaning liberals telling hard-pressed working people that “migration is wonderful” (“Love your neighbour, wherever they’re from” as Ian Dury put it). It’s about who’s causing the problems and who isn’t; where solutions are going to come from and where they aren’t; who they – and all of us – should be angry with, and who we shouldn’t. There’s a lot at stake here: there’s a great deal of latent anger out there (some of it not entirely latent), and if we get the wrong result in May it could easily be channelled in some very unpleasant directions. I know Labour’s leadership are aware of this; I had hoped they would act, and campaign, accordingly.

On inspection, incidentally, Labour’s actual proposals for controlling immigration turn out to be the enforcement of the minimum wage and an unpleasant but largely meaningless clampdown on the ‘benefits tourism’ non-problem. So they actually aren’t kicking down to any great extent. But, by the same token, they’ve left an open goal for any political opponent or hostile interviewer: the pledge says ‘Controls on immigration’; where are they? All in all it’s dreadful stuff. The idea seems to be triangulation, straight out of Bill Clinton’s playbook – pitching a left-wing policy in language that ticks the Daily Mail‘s boxes – and, absent a leader with Bill Clinton’s personal charisma and charm, I don’t believe it can possibly work.

Lies, damned lies and the BBC News

I’ve always thought the BBC News was reasonably trustworthy. Very establishment-oriented, very quick to condemn disorder in any form, very slow to condemn the police or politicians (unless a readily identifiable bad apple can be found), basically rather right-wing, unthinkingly dismissive of the radical Left and rather too fond of displaying attacks from the Right as evidence that they have achieved ‘balance’. For all that, I’ve always thought they were basically reliable on matters of fact, not to mention on fundamental issues like the importance of not killing, not lying and taking the law seriously.

My confidence has been dented by some recent stories. I was disturbed by the BBC’s coverage of the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, parts of which didn’t so much skirt the ‘anti-extremist’ rabbit-hole as jump straight down it: “where does multi-culturalism end and extremism begin?” we were asked one evening, by the newsreader himself. (So, about these darkies – can we trust them as far as we can throw them?) Parts of the Gaza coverage have also been appalling. But it was last night’s news that really shook me – the story on restricting out-of-work benefits to EU migrants, specifically.

So here’s the story from PM, broadcast at 17.00 on 29/7/2014.

The government is defending new measures to restrict out-of-work benefits such as Job Seeker’s Allowance to EU migrants, saying they’ll save half a billion pounds over the next five years. EU claimants will receive only three months of payments unless there’s a very clear prospect of them getting a job.

On the 6.00 News (18.00, 29/7/2014), Norman Smith covered the politics of the announcement, and when I say ‘politics’…

Today’s curbs on so-called benefit tourism follow a string of similar announcements aimed at ending what the Prime Minister calls the “magnetic pull” of the British benefits system – the hope that barring EU migrants from claiming support after three months will deter many from coming here in the first place. But the move is also designed to reassure voters that Mr Cameron is serious about tackling immigration. … UKIP meanwhile, who have made immigration central to their appeal, mocked today’s announcement, insisting that under Mr Cameron immigrants would continue (in their words) to flood into Britain … The European Commission have also stepped into the fray, dismissing ministers’ concerns over benefit tourism and announcing a review into the legality of the government’s benefit changes. All of which is most unlikely to trouble Mr Cameron – provided today’s announcement helps convince voters he’s at least trying to address their concerns over immigration.

First off, there is nothing principled or even rational here. Smith distinguishes between the actual effect of the policy and its presentational impact, but the only effect cited – Cameron’s ‘hope’ – is that fewer people from other parts of the EU end up coming to Britain. Why is that a good idea? We’re not told; we don’t need to be told. But as well as this hoped-for reduction in the numbers of people speaking English with a foreign accent (and wasn’t there something about saving half a billion pounds earlier on?), the policy is designed to ‘reassure voters’ that the government is ‘trying to address their concerns’. By the end of the piece this has become the main purpose of the announcement: it’s not that the government hates foreigners, you understand, it’s just that lots of people out there do hate foreigners and the government wants their votes. As for the European Commission, we know that our Prime Minister doesn’t listen to them! (On a side note, the relentless personalisation of this story is depressing in itself – when was David Cameron elected president?) Those Europeans – they can talk about how there’s no evidence, and how it might be against the law or something, but why should anyone care what they say? Bunch of foreigners!

So there’s xenophobia; cynical attempts to pander to xenophobia, for no other reason than that somebody else is doing it; the design of government policy around vote-chasing, irrespective of whether it’s needed or what effect it will have; contempt for international obligations; contempt for evidence; contempt for the rule of law. This is disgusting stuff; to hear the BBC passing it on as political normality is depressing and, frankly, alarming.

But all is not lost. The programme included a second report on the same policy by Mark Easton, who seems to have more traditional ideas about how journalism works:

When the BBC asked how many migrants would be affected by the proposed changes to eligibility, we were told ministers simply didn’t know. There are no figures for EU migrants claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance for more than three months. The government blames the previous Labour administration for not keeping proper records. Our analysis suggests the number affected by the new measures could be as low as a few thousand across the whole country. … [The Prime Minister] told reporters today’s changes would save the British taxpayer half a billion pounds over the next five years. However, later Downing Street explained he was referring to estimates for how much might be saved by existing immigration controls. As we now know, they can’t tell how much the policy might save, because they admit they don’t have the evidence that would tell them.

Wait a minute – that’s a story right there. The Prime Minister announced the reduction of entitlement to out-of-work benefits from six to three months, and then he said – it was quoted all over the place – “Our changes today will save the British taxpayer half a billion pounds over the next five years”. None of your ‘existing immigration controls’ – our changes today. That claim was false – or speculative at best – and it’s been retracted, after the BBC did the numbers and asked for clarification. That’s the headline, surely. At the very least it’s a proud day for BBC News: “Government withdraws misleading claims under pressure from BBC”. This could have legs: “Furious Cameron demands source of inaccurate immigration figures”; “Cameron under pressure as ‘misleading’ immigration claims unravel”; “Fears for coalition as Lib Dems challenge immigration policy” (they haven’t yet, but get this out there and they will)…

At the very least, the story has changed: it’s no longer a story about how your government is going to save money and address your fears about all those nasty immigrants (with a nod and a wink to the grown-ups from Norman Smith: OK, so it’s all just scaremongering, but that’s politics for you!) It’s now a story about how the government has put forward a very controversial and possibly illegal policy, with the specific aim of making one group of very poor people even poorer, and first claimed to have evidence to support it, then admitted that there is no evidence.

News headlines, Radio 4, 19.00, 29/7/2014

The government is defending new measures to restrict out-of-work benefits such as Job Seeker’s Allowance to EU migrants, saying they’ll save half a billion pounds over the next five years.

Unless they use pre-recorded news headline segments, by the time that script was read out, the government wasn’t ‘saying’ that. The announcer himself had probably heard the retraction on the 6.00 News. The only reason for leaving that claim unchallenged is to save the government’s face – and that’s the last thing the BBC News should be doing, least of all when the loss of face is related to a baseless, evidenceless, cynical, hateful and illegal exercise in chasing votes and polluting the public discourse.

BBC News: shame on you.

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.

The most cruel

Growing up in the 1970s, it’s hard to overstate how important the cause of Chile was. 11th September 1973 was, I suppose, a “naked lunch” moment – a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork; we knew who was on whose side, and what they were willing to do.

Joan Jara:

on the 18th of September … a young man came to my house, said, “Please, I need to talk to you. I’m a friend. I’ve been working in the city morgue. I’m afraid to tell you that Victor’s body has been recognized,” because it was a well-known — his was a well-known face. And he said, “You must come with me and claim his body; otherwise, they will put him in a common grave, and he will disappear.”

So then I accompanied this young man to the city morgue. We entered by a side entrance. I saw the hundreds of bodies, literally hundreds of bodies, that were high piled up in what was actually the parking place, I think, of the morgue. And I had to look for Victor’s body among a long line in the offices of the city morgue, recognized him. I saw what had happened to him. I saw the bullet wounds. I saw the state of his body.

And I consider myself one of the lucky ones, in the sense that I had to face at that moment what had happened to Victor, and I could give my testimony with all the force of what I felt in that moment, and not that horror, which is much worse, of never knowing what happened to your loved one, as what happened to so many families, so many women, who have spent these 40 years looking for their loved ones who were made to disappear.

But the real significance of 11th September wasn’t the treachery or the horrors of the coup itself, or the years of brutal misery that followed. The coup mattered because of what it destroyed: the beginnings of a radical social experiment, bringing millions of people a chance of a decent life, some power over their own lives, a bit of confidence in the future. The sheer joy of that period has never been captured better than in this song (which I’ve cited before but not linked). Listen to the middle eight – it’s as if Victor Jara’s saying, you get it now? being alive is good, being in love is great, but this – this is happiness! this is how we were meant to live!

Forty years after that hope was destroyed, let’s celebrate it. (Translation in comments.)

Maria,
abre la ventana
y deja que el sol alumbre
por todos los rincones
de tu casa.

Maria,
mira hacia fuera
nuestra vida no ha sido hecha
para rodearla de sombras
y tristezas.

Maria, ya ves
no basta nacer, crecer, amar,
para encontrar la felicidad.

Pasó lo mas cruel,
ahora tus ojos se llenan de luz
y tus manos de miel

Maria…

Tu risa brota como la mañana,
brota en el jardín
Maria…

You’ve got to have the money to buy it

Let’s talk about legal aid.

I think it’s reasonable to say that the government isn’t keen on legal aid; many restrictions and obstacles have been introduced to the legal aid scene in the last few years, including an element of means-testing. It’s still broadly the case that, if you’re taken to court and you face a prison sentence (or equally serious penalty) if found guilty, you’re entitled to legal advice free of charge. Moreover, you’re entitled to choose your own representation. You may not choose to use this right or be able to exercise it effectively, but for many defendants this is a godsend. For example, if (far from hypothetically) you’re up on a public order charge arising from a demonstration, and you happen to know that a particular law firm has a good record in holding the police and the CPS to account in similar cases, you have the right to give them the call. These rights extend to serving prisoners and non-citizens such as asylum seekers, although naturally these small groups of people only supply a small proportion of the total legal aid caseload.

The government is currently bringing forward proposals to transform legal aid for criminal cases. This isn’t hyperbole, or if it is it’s not mine: the consultation document is actually called “Transforming Legal Aid“.

The transformation that the Ministry of Justice have in mind has two objectives. Firstly, costs would be cut. The consultation document hammers on the cost-cutting drum. The proposals in the consultation document fall into two categories: those with a justification on plausible financial grounds (disregarding their impact on the quality of service) and those with a vague handwave in the direction of a possible justification on financial grounds.

However, the sums involved are, in context, trivial: the estimated total annual saving is £220 million, or just under a fifth of one per cent of public sector net borrowing for the last financial year. This suggests that the second, less overtly stated, objective may be the main motivation: that the goal is not to produce a cheaper criminal legal aid system but a radically different one. The proposals would introduce competitive tendering for the right to offer legal aid services in particular areas, corresponding roughly to the forty-odd police force areas; no more than four firms would be accredited in any one area. (Correction: the number of firms accredited for each area is pre-determined, but the numbers vary from four up to a maximum of 38 (London West and Central). Fifteen of the proposed 42 areas have been allocated the minimum of four.) Clients would be assigned to lawyers rather than being able to choose them, and would have to stay with the brief they’d been given throughout the case. The proposals are designed not only to create a cost-driven market in legal aid provision but to open it up to new entrants, corporations offering a standardised and streamlined legal representation service; the Eddie Stobart haulage firm has already expressed an interest. It would still be possible to pay for legal representation of one’s choice; indeed, defendants with a high enough disposable income would be debarred from legal aid, positively guaranteeing the creation of a two-tier system. There’s more, and worse.

At an open meeting, Elizabeth Gibby of the Ministry of Justice was fazed by one particularly difficult question:

“Can you remind me of the section in the consultation paper which deals with the interests of the user of the service,” a solicitor from Oxford asked politely.

“I’m sorry; I don’t quite understand what you are saying,” Gibby replied after a pause.

“Can you refer me to the section of the paper that deals with the quality of the service provided and the effect on the quality of these proposals,” the solicitor asked again.

Gibby and her team of officials still seemed lost for words. Eventually, she asked the solicitor to respond to the consultation paper if he didn’t think that quality had been adequately covered in it.

There is nothing in the consultation paper about the quality of the service. Or to put it another way, the consultation is all about the quality of the service – it’s all about replacing the existing service with a lower-quality substitute. This matters, for very much the same reason as it would matter if we were replacing GPs or teachers with low-waged employees of profit-making companies. We know it’s a bad thing when people get the wrong advice from a banker or an estate agent or a car salesman, most of all if the person giving the advice profits from it; if there were a government scheme to make it easier for financial advisors to recommend the wrong product we’d all be up in arms. But bad legal advice is much, much worse; someone who gets the wrong legal advice can end up being named as a paedophile, or burdened with a conviction for fraud that will never become spent, or behind bars for murder, without having committed any of those crimes. (These real-life examples are from A Barrister’s Wife, a new blog which I strongly recommend.) And the proposed reforms will make bad legal advice much, much more likely.

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that standardising legal aid would drive out professionalism, or that the only decent lawyers are those who can charge huge fees. The legal aid budget is already administered fairly strictly – any legal aid criminal defence lawyer motivated by money is in the wrong branch of the business. The problem with cost pressure and standardisation is much more insidious, and rests on a little-known fact about the criminal justice system – little-known to those of us outside the system, that is; for practitioners it’s the most open of secrets. This is the fact that nobody wants a trial. For the police, taking a case to court is laborious and time-consuming; what’s worse, it creates opportunities for the criminal (as they see it) to walk free, and for all their hard work to be wasted. The CPS are duty bound to chuck out the weak cases and those which it’s not in the public interest to pursue; when they’ve identified what they see as good, strong cases, the last thing they want is to risk an acquittal. Lawyers might be thought to have more of an interest in the courtroom show going on, but their position also makes them all the more aware of what a chancy business it can be – and their workload makes quick resolution a high priority. The answer to all these problems is a guilty plea. For the police and the CPS, a guilty plea means the job’s done: the criminal’s been charged, the criminal’s owned up, the criminal’s been sentenced. Defence lawyers want what’s in their client’s best interests, but what that means in practice is that they want to aim for – and they want their client to aim for – the best result they can realistically hope to achieve. In many cases, quite irrespective of questions of factual guilt, this may well mean advising a guilty plea: someone who is likely to be found guilty in a contested trial will be well advised to plead Guilty and gain a reduced sentence. At the same time, a guilty plea by the client will mean that the lawyer can save some time and get on to the next case, which will always be a consideration if time is limited – and time generally is limited when money is limited. Realistically, a system with cut-price, competitive-tendered, corporatised legal aid will be a system where much less time is spent on case preparation, much less scrutiny is given to materials that may hold vital evidence, and many more suspects and defendants are persuaded to plead Guilty – irrespective of their factual guilt or innocence. In 2000 Andrew Sanders and Richard Young described the criminal justice system as being characterised by “the mass production of guilty pleas”; if these reforms go through, they (and we) ain’t seen nothing yet.

Update 30/5/13: more on this from Francis FitzGibbon in the LRB, drawing out some unpleasant aspects of the proposals which I haven’t focused on (there are plenty to go round). There are many more links here.

These reforms are an assault on the legal profession and on everyone’s access to justice; they have no ethical justification and only the flimsiest justification in cost terms. They need to be stopped. Please sign the epetitions Save UK Justice petition; there’s also one from 38 Degrees. If you’ve got half an hour to spare, and especially if you’ve got anything you can cite as an organisational affiliation, please complete the Ministry of Justice’s online survey. Over the fold are some highlights from my answers. Continue reading

Come write me down

There’s a particular form of serendipity that comes from learning something in one area which resolves a puzzle, or fills a gap in your thinking, in another area entirely. It’s all the more serendipitous – and pleasant – if you didn’t realise the gap was there.

This line of thought was prompted by this piece on the excellent FactCheck blog, which made me realise that I’d always been a bit dubious about the notion of “policy-based evidence”. OK, it’s a neat reversal – and all too often people who say they’re making evidence-based policy are doing nothing of the sort – but is the alternative really policy-based evidence? Doesn’t that amount to accusing them of just making it up?

Thanks to Cathy Newman at FactCheck, I realise now that I was looking at this question the wrong way. Actually “policy-based evidence” means something quite specific, and it hasn’t (necessarily) got anything to do with outright fraud. Watch closely:

Iain Duncan Smith has been celebrating the government’s benefits cap. Part of the welfare reform bill, state handouts will be capped at £26,000 a year so that “no family on benefits will earn more than the average salary of a working family,” i.e. £35,000 a year before tax.

Today, the work and pensions secretary was delighted to cite figures released by his department which he said were evidence that the policy is already driving people back into work. Of 58,000 claimants sent a letter saying their benefits were to be capped, 1,700 subsequently moved into work. Another 5,000 said they wanted support to get back into work, according to the figures.

OK, this is fairly simplistic thinking – We did a new thing! Something happened! Our thing worked! – but it’s something like a legitimate way to analyse what’s going on, surely. It may need more sophisticated handling, but the evidence is there, isn’t it?

Well, no, it isn’t.

In order to know how effective the policy had been, we would need to know the rate at which people on benefits worth more than £26,000 went into work before the letter announcing the changes was sent, and compare it to after the letter was received. But those figures aren’t available.

“[These figures do] not reveal the effect of the policy,” Robert Joyce, senior researcher at the Institute for Fiscal Studies told us. Mr Joyce went on: “Indeed, this number is consistent with the policy having had no effect at all. Over any period, some fraction of an unemployed group will probably move into work, regardless of whether a benefits cap is about to be implemented. The number of people who moved into work as a result of the policy is 1,700 minus the number of people who would have moved into work anyway. We do not know the latter number, so we do not know the effect of the policy.”

The number of people, in a given group of claimants, who signed off over a given period is data. Collecting data is the easy part: take five minutes and you can do it now if you like. (Number of objects on your desk: data. Number of stationary cars visible from your window: data. Number of heartbeats in five minutes: data.) It’s only when the data’s been analysed – it’s only when we’ve compared the data with other conditions, compared variations in the data with variations in those conditions and eliminated chance fluctuations – that data turns into evidence. The number of people who moved into work as a result of the policy is 1,700 minus the number of people who would have moved into work anyway: that number would be evidence, if we had it (or had reliable means of estimating it). The figure of 1,700 is data.

One final quote:

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “The Secretary of State believes that the benefits cap is having an effect.”

Et voilà: policy-based evidence.

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”.

Ciao, Ceausescu

It may be worth noting that La Repubblica appears to have just called Berlusconi a dictator:

An empty regime by Ezio Mauro

Unable to save Italy, they’re trying desperately to save themselves. This is all that’s left of the titanic force of Berlusconism, the “liberal revolution”, the government of “getting things done”, the Lega’s wind from the North. A terrified political class, afraid even to show their faces to their own supporters, unable to manage the crisis and now unable to come up with the solutions in government which the country needs.

The only solution offered is a cut-price agreement, inadequate at best and probably useless, which they hope will distract Europe’s attention for long enough to offer some breathing space for the shared desperation of Bossi and Berlusconi, shut away in government offices that have turned into their last bunker.

Both the effective leaders of Europe (Sarkozy/Merkel) and the formal leadership (Van Rompuy and Barroso) told Berlusconi that he had three days to pass the necessary measures to get Italy out of the Greek circle of Hell. The Prime Minister agreed. Then, back in Italy, he had to deal with the brick wall of the Lega Nord; with open crisis in his own party and in Bossi’s; with the ungovernability of his parliamentary majority; and with the self-evident exhaustion of his own leadership and its total loss of authority.

He should resign, allowing the country to try and save itself while there is still time. But he is no statesman; he sees his own personal fate as more pressing than the fate of Italy. He is locked into a political death-agony like something from the last days of the Christiam Democrat empire*, which may end up producing a lowest-common-denominator agreement, but can no longer produce either a political programme or a government. Europe and the markets will pass judgment on this utter lack of responsibility. We should also take note: governments regularly fall when their political time is up, but regimes can never find a way to end**.

* un’agonia democristiana, da tardo impero
**mentre i governi cadono regolarmente quando una fase politica si esaurisce, solo i regimi non sanno finire

The key word is ‘regime’: this is strong stuff in the Italian context, as it specifically refers to non-democratic regimes – whether Communist or, er, what was the other one…

I’ve got a piece in the next issue of the Bulletin of Italian Politics about ‘the Italian transition’: the idea that the period since 1993 has been a period of transition from the Christian Democrat-dominated First Republic to some new and more politically ‘normal’ settlement, featuring (among other things) Left and Right parties which can change places in government without bringing the entire system into crisis. Against this idea, many people argue that 18 years (and counting) is a bit on the long side for a period of transition; maybe this is the Second Republic and we (or rather the Italians) are stuck with it. I think the extraordinary fragility and turbulence of the current Berlusconi government, which itself derives from the steady erosion of his original centre-Right coalition, tells against this; we’re clearly not there yet, as there’s no ‘there’ here. In the paper I suggest that, rather than compressing the period of transition, we should extend it: the real ‘transition’ is the transition from Fascism to democracy, which stalled in 1948 with the imposition of Christian Democratic hegemony, stuttered into life again around 1993 and then ground to a halt again under Signor B.

Fascism has never quite been forgotten in Italy; the Republic was built on massacres by Fascists and massacres of Fascists. This is not to say that Italian politics is riven with anti-Fascist and anti-Communist passions; on the contrary, the strongest and most widely-shared passion is the passion for centrism, the dream of being a normal European country without any ‘opposed extremisms’. But this means that the one essential requirement for an Italian leader is the ability to put the Fascist past decisively behind him or her, to lead a governo and not a regime. La Repubblica is a centre-Left paper, generally more ‘centre’ than ‘Left’; its writers share that passion for normality, and the underlying passion for avoiding civil war. As a result they generally give the government – any government – the benefit of the doubt; a typical Repubblica editorial will urge the government to be more responsible and moderate, even when it’s clear that they’re committed to being anything but.

No longer: the paper’s served notice on Berlusconi that he is the problem. He must go, and soon.

Kadoodle-oodle-skippety-wee!

As long ago as Long Ago, and as Long Ago Again as That, the City of Peking in the Ancient Land of China rang with jubilation and rejoicing; for a Son and Heir had been born to the Emperor Aladdin and the Empress Bedr-al-Budur

the Grand Vizier summoned a Special Meeting of State in the White Lacquer Room of the Imperial Palace. You may judge for yourself the importance of this Meeting, when I tell you that His Gracious Majesty the Emperor Aladdin presided over it Himself. Others present included the Lord Chamberlain; the Prime Minister; two Senior Generals from the Palace Guard; the Master of the Horse; the Mistress of the Robes; and an Unidentified Friend of the Master of the Horse.

‘Your Majesty!’ began the Grand Vizier imposingly. ‘Also Lords and Ladies of the Imperial Court! Also the Friend of the Master of the Horse. We are met here this evening to give Formal Voice to our Humble and Unworthy Joy at the birth of a Son and Heir to our Celestial Emperor of all the Chinas’

Thus chapter 1. In the next chapter, time having passed in the mean time, Aladdin’s son and heir comes of age, a topic discussed at an equally important meeting attended by the Prince himself and both his parents:

‘Your Imperial Majesties!’ began the Grand Vizier, imposingly. ‘Also, Your Imperial Highness! Also, Lords and Ladies of the Court! We are met here (all except the Friend of the Master of the Horse, who has been sent to his Room till Tea-Time) to give formal Voice to our Humble and Unworthy Joy at the Very Important Event of the Coming of Age of the Heir Apparent’

From Noel Langley, The Land of Green Ginger (1937 and 1966). It’s uncanny.

Update What I really find hard to comprehend is the glacial pace at which this story’s moving. Liam Fox seems genuinely not to have any idea that he’s done anything wrong, and the government hierarchy seems pretty nonchalant as well; the idea seems to be that he’ll be hung out to dry if and when the story becomes too embarrassing, which by implication it hasn’t done yet. Perhaps it’s deliberate news management; certainly it’s made life difficult for the BBC news, which has been left without any editorial stance on the story, other than noting that suspicions continue to grow that Fox may at some time possibly have done something that people might consider wrong in some way. This page is comedy gold; I like the 11.35 quote from Nick Robinson to the effect that Fox is telling people he’s the victim of a “hate campaign”. I may be out of touch, but I don’t think Liam Fox is hated by anyone who doesn’t know him personally – he’s not that important. If he’s the victim of anything, it’s a “WTF did you think you were doing (and who are you anyway)?” campaign. Interesting line of defence, too:

friends have also rallied round to help defend his corner, telling Robinson Werritty was a “a groupie who kept turning up pretending to be something he wasn’t”

(A ‘that’ would have helped there. Robinson Werritty – who’s he?)

The point here is that, even if that were true (which I don’t believe for a moment) it would still suggest that Fox was a bumbling incompetent who should be sacked pronto. Werritty “kept turning up” and helping himself to a seat at the conference table – and he just let him sit there? Why, exactly?

Final (genuine) quote from Fox, asked to identify the unnamed friend who was staying over the night his flat was burgled:

For the sake of clarity,
it wasn’t Adam Werritty.

Kadoodle-oodle-skippety-wee!

They work so hard

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

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

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

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

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

Comedy break:

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

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

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

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

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

Looks are deceptive

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm.

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

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

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

…just mostly.

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

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

But what is to be done?

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

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

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

Oh. Maybe not.

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

Wipe that drool off your chin, man!

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

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

In the depths of some men’s minds

Ken:

Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity.

As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.

Flying Rodent goes into more detail:

There are plenty of calls for calm around today, with reasonable people counselling against linking one man’s horrific crimes to the deranged views he espouses, those being a half-baked political analysis that has been festering on the internet and even in the pages of the mainstream right wing press such as the Mail and the Spectator for years.

I disagree. I think that now, more than ever, fingers need to be pointed squarely at those who have been disseminating this poisonous cack, and searching questions need to be asked. First up – What the fuck did you think you were doing?

I sympathise with both posts, and I certainly don’t think we need to devote too much time to the “reasonable people” who initially tried to depoliticise the crime for reasons which I don’t entirely follow. (Dan Hodges‘ argument seems to be that when a murderous neo-fascist nutter who believes in killing socialists succeeds in killing a large number of socialists, after devoting years of his life to plotting how to kill large numbers of socialists, this should be reported with the words “murderous nutter kills a lot of people”: anything more political would be, well, political. I think Hodges is in the minority on this one; even the BBC News, which this evening gave a startled world a few glimpses of “Andrew Berwick”‘s copy-and-paste meisterwerk, has started reporting the attack as an attack on the Norwegian Labour Party. (To judge from the URL of Hodges’ piece, even his own magazine is thinking along similar lines.)

This wasn’t just any old borderline-psychotic killing spree – it was an extreme-right borderline-psychotic killing spree, supported by arguments very similar to those used by right-wingers who fill daily papers and sell books. As far as that goes, I’m with Ken. But what conclusion do we draw? Three possibilities:

1. He’s one of theirs and they can lump it.
I can certainly see the appeal of this one. But what do we say when the Phillipses and Clarksons and Littlejohns claim that this wasn’t what they meant? Anyone who doesn’t wash their hands of this guy good and hard, hang ’em out to dry; they’re not the problem. (Incidentally, is the leader of the EDL really called Stephen Yaxley Lennon? That’s some name.) But there are differences between peddling poisonous lies about Muslims and the Left, on one hand, and refusing to condemn mass murder on the basis of poisonous lies about Muslims and the Left, on the other; one difference is that I’m happy to accuse Melanie Phillips of one, but not the other. In fact the worst of which we could accuse Phillips and co on this basis is inconsistency – willing the end but not the means – and in this context that’s pretty much a compliment. If, on the other hand, we cut the knot by saying that the lies themselves are the problem – the ground in which mass murder grew – we’re taking a big step towards criminalising political expression. Another possibility:

2. Keep talking.
On psychotic murderous Islamists, my line has always been that the psychotic murderousness is the problem, the Islamism being something we can oppose by normal political means. (Which, of course, doesn’t mean “gently” or “by conciliation”. I didn’t think that Thatcherism, or even the openly reactionary Toryism of the Monday Club, should be fought by being banned – but I certainly didn’t think they should be appeased.) Sauce for the goose: if the nonsense of “Eurabia” now has an armed wing, that doesn’t mean that the people who came up with it have been – or should be – delegitimated as Preachers of Death. Apart from anything else, leftists have been known to do crazy and horrible things in the name of their beliefs: the Khmer Rouge stated, and some of them probably believed, that what was going on in Democratic Kampuchea was an extreme form of class struggle. I don’t believe that Communism was delegitimated by Pol Pot or Islamism by bin Laden. Should the racist fantasies of “Eurabia” be any different – should they be grounds for getting the Special Branch involved? I don’t believe so.

3. Yes, but this is different.
The third possibility is that there are specific reasons for labelling this particular set of political beliefs indelibly with the massacre carried out in their name. Can we say that the massacre was a logical extension of the beliefs, in a way that’s not true of Communism and Pol Pot or Islamism and bin Laden? I think there may be something in this. As Flying Rodent says, the endless drip-feed of anti-left and anti-Muslim propaganda may not be intended to incite violence, but it’s genuinely hard to see what else it was supposed to be doing: the negativity, the anti-political populism (those out-of-touch liberal political elites!) and the personalisation of the problem all point away from any form of political participation. And then there’s the dimension of power, as John commented at FR:

The Muslims whom Phillips etc have long accused of giving succour and support to extremists – even if we accept that there is a minority who do – differ in one very important respect from the Eurabia lobby: power. Who is it who has access to prominent media platforms in the UK, US, Canada and elsewhere? Who is it who can command rewarding publishing contracts for their latest shroud-waving volume? It’s not poor kids on the streets of Bradford, that’s for sure.

Another way of approaching the question of how this kind of propaganda differs from other ideologies which have been linked with atrocities is to look at the atrocity itself. It’s been noted that indiscriminate mass killing is, historically, the “terrorism” of the Right. As I wrote myself,

a sharp distinction must be drawn between [the left-wing armed groups’] actions and terrorist acts such as the Piazza Fontana bomb: indiscriminately lethal attacks on apolitical targets, calculated to produce maximum alarm. The actions of the ‘armed struggle’ groups were mainly directed against property rather than people; all violence against the person was directed against individuals, and most was non-lethal; and targets were invariably selected for political or strategic reasons, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy.

Left “terrorists” who kill people have generally known exactly who they were killing and exactly why, and been able to justify each killing individually; even particularly repugnant crimes, like the murder of Aldo Moro’s bodyguards or of the brother of an informer, could be given a specific tactical justification (if not necessarily a very convincing one). The Norway attack certainly didn’t follow that model. However, there’s a problem here, which is that it didn’t follow the Piazza Fontana model either: the killer specifically targeted those kids because of what they were in his eyes. It’s closer to the late C19/early C20 anarchist mad bomber tendency (for whom throwing a bomb in a theatre was OK, because anyone who was there was bound to be a bourgeois) – or, for that matter, to the jihadist “collective responsibility” argument, whereby anyone working in the Twin Towers (or travelling on the Tube) is ipso facto complicit in the crimes of imperialism.

What we’re looking at here, then, is a form of politics based on denouncing threats to “our way of life”, blaming them on an identifiable minority, and dismissing politicians as either complicit or powerless to resist. It’s preached by rich and powerful people whose wellbeing is under no threat at all, and finds an audience among people who think of themselves as having a stake in society but feel insecure and under threat. And, when it is taken up by a murderous lunatic, the form it takes is neither random terror nor targeted assassination, but hunting and killing members of a selected group – pogrom, in short.

This is not just a matter of hanging a lone nutter on the Right, or even on the racist extreme Right. It’s the other way round: if we take the massacre as the starting point, and look back from there at the writers the killer respected, we can see the outlines of something new emerging. Or rather, the outlines of something all too familiar, whose latest form has been developing in plain sight. This will, hopefully, be a defining moment – one in which the Littlejohns and Phillipses get a good look at the tiger they’re now riding. And so do we.

They really are a treat

On a not particularly amusing day, I was amused by the news that the LGBT section of the EDL had planned a leafleting session on Canal Street in Manchester, but had bottled ithad a change of plan.

What do we know about Canal Street? Three things. Firstly, it is mad busy these days; the top end of the street, especially, is basically paved with little round tables, and if you pass through after work on a weekday you’ll find a good half of them occupied. (I should say before I go much further that Canal St makes a particularly good short cut from the station to a bus stop that I use; I’ve passed through quite a few times over the years.) Some of the venues are bar/clubs, some are restaurant/bars; some are ‘mixed’ (i.e. straight-friendly), some are gay but tolerant of the hen-night trade, several are gay with a capital G. It doesn’t make much difference: walk down Canal Street at 5.00 on a Thursday and they’ll all be buzzing. What a sunny Saturday afternoon is like I don’t know, but I can guess. If we assume that the Canal St clientele has a similar political makeup to the population as a whole, that would mean that 60-70% of those people were positively hostile to the EDL. Tough crowd.

Secondly, it’s been the place to go for a gay venue from way back. Back in the 80s – before any of the joints I’ve just referred to existed – there used to be more of a (heterosexual) ‘red light’ vibe to Canal St; once when I was heading for my bus a young & cheerful woman actually fell into step with me and walked along next to me describing her services. (Wonder where she is now. Hope she’s OK.) Even then, pubs like the Rembrandt and the New Union were spoken of in hushed tones, as if to say no really some of the people who go in those places actually are gay, some of them even look gay… Then came Manto, a ‘mixed’ bar at the bottom of Canal St where I used to go quite a lot on Saturday afternoons in the mid-90s; at the time I don’t think there was anywhere else in Manchester where you could drink beer while sitting on hard chairs at little round tables on a terracotta pavement, and the novelty was quite appealing for a while. There also weren’t many places where nobody would care whether you were gay or straight. Compulsory heterosexuality has never really cramped my style, but I still quite liked the atmosphere created by a bit of discreet outness. Manto was the first of many, and not the most assertive by any means. (It’s still there now, under different management, although it’s looking a bit sad; it’s been rather left behind by the development of the area.) The point is, Canal Street was gay-friendly at a time when being gay-friendly was deeply unfashionable, culturally and politically – and the nationalist right were the most hostile of all.

Thirdly, the hostility was reciprocated. Digressing a bit, here’s something I wrote in response to Michael Walzer a few years ago:

We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation, a leap “into a realm free of determination”; what we can hope to do is move “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”.

the question is whether there are groups whose ‘determinations’ I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don’t have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti “KILL NAZI SCUM”. As I say, I’m not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn’t involve death – it’s more along the lines of “SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM” or “NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA” – but I can’t help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.

The bridge was over the canal, beside Canal St. Happy leafleting, lads.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 342 other followers

%d bloggers like this: