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11 September 2015 – 20:23
While we wait for the results, let’s just run through some of the reasons not to vote for our man Corbyn. He’s an accidental front-runner; he only stood in the first place to broaden the debate and make sure that somebody was standing from the Left. He’s a life-long backbencher with no experience of holding a ministerial or even a shadow ministerial role; he’s got no following in the parliamentary Labour party and very few allies; he’s never had to win over people who don’t like him or defend policies he doesn’t agree with; he’s always had the luxury of saying what he thinks and voting for what he believes in. On top of that lot, he’s not glamorous, he’s getting on a bit, and he tends to talk in sentences and think in paragraphs; ask Rowan Williams how that worked out for him. Plus, of course, he’s a serious and committed anti-imperialist and has been for some time, which inevitably means sitting around the table with some fairly unpleasant people. We may take the long view on this one, and I think we probably should (“The story of the British Empire is that one begins as a terrorist and ends up by having tea with the Queen.” – Tony Benn); we may also take the view that anyone who’s been to a G20 summit has sat around a table with people guilty of far worse. But hostages to fortune there have certainly been; when the Murdoch press starts digging, they won’t have to dig very deep.
Some of us (hi Phil!) have weighed all of this up and decided to vote tactically. But an awful lot of people have gone for Corbyn and stayed with Corbyn. I’m guessing he’ll end up under 50% on first preferences, but not by much; I think the third round will decide it, and I don’t think it will be close. This, when you look at that first paragraph, is hard to explain. I also suspect that quite a few Burnham or Cooper voters will turn out to have given their second preference to Corbyn rather than Kendall – so much for ‘ABC’; that would be really hard to explain. So: what’s (probably) going on out there? There are lots of reasons why somebody might have leant towards Corbyn from the outset, but why have so many people rallied to him, and stuck with him, despite all of the above? Why Corbyn, given everything we know about Corbyn?
1. Because Fuck You
Sorry about the language, but it has to be said. Here’s a very mild example of the kind of thing I’m talking about, from the desk of John Prescott:
Hello comrade! (We can still say that can’t we?)
I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and be brief.
This leadership election is nearly over, and it looks like it’s down to a choice between Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham.
I was glad I encouraged MPs to nominate Jeremy to get him into this race because we really needed a debate on Labour’s future.
And what a debate it’s been! People are flocking to meetings, our number of members and supporters has tripled and there’s a buzz about Labour again.
But now you need to decide who’s the best person to lead us back to power in 2020.
Spoiler: not Jeremy.
“What a debate it’s been,” indeed. But now, well… come on, lads, you’ve had your fun… I don’t mind this quite so much from Prescott, who is at least expressing support for one of the candidates (“Andy Burnham”, apparently – no, me neither). But the message from some of Labour’s great and good has been one part condescension, one part indifference to the actual result of the election (as long as it’s not Corbyn) and one part ill-disguised panic at the thought that the grown-ups might not have it all their way. It’s not a persuasive combination. Think of Tony Blair’s disastrous interventions: first mocking Corbyn and his supporters, then pleading with us, then finally acknowledging that we hate him – and pleading with us anyway. Or Peter Mandelson, tutting about how regrettable it is that so many people have piled into the party to vote for Corbyn, then – in the next sentence – saying that what Labour really needs is a leader who can attract people to the party. Or Tristram Hunt actually recommending an ABC vote: You know that candidate who says that all the others are the same? What you need to do is vote for anyone but him – doesn’t matter which one; in fact why not vote for all of them, just to be on the safe side?
I mean, really, how dare they? How dare they tell us who we can’t vote for? How dare they assume that supporting Corbyn isn’t a rational choice made by adults, but some sort of emotional spasm, from which we can be awoken by the calm words of Very Serious People? Who do they think they are?
So that’s reason #1; I don’t think it’s the main reason (for me or anyone else), but I do think it’s there. At some level, having listened to the Very Serious People, I’m sticking with Corbyn because fuck you.
(I do apologise for the language. And not you, obviously, dear reader – unless by some bizarre train of events this post has come to the attention of Blair, Mandelson or Hunt.)
2. Because If Not Now, When?
This, I think, captures something that a lot of us thought at the time of the vote on the Welfare Reform Bill. We have, after all, tried moving Right with New Labour; they had a good old go at the helm of government, and what they did there doesn’t all bear thinking about. We’ve tried stealth radicalism – playing Grandmother’s Footsteps with the media, shuffling to the Left while trying to look rooted to the spot and exude statesmanlike responsibility. (No wonder Ed Miliband always had that startled look.) It doesn’t work: the Left hated the presentation, the Right didn’t buy the policies and the public thought he was trying to put something over on them. It is, surely, our turn. To be told instead that it was time for New Labour Part Deux – and that this would involve moving even further Right, to the extent of dismantling New Labour’s own achievements in government… no. There is surely a time to stand and fight – to say what we actually believe in and try to win people round. And if it isn’t now – when?
There’s another aspect of this. Pace John Prescott, I am aware that there’s an election in 2020. To put it another way, I’m aware that there isn’t another election before 2020. If there was an election in the next nine months, say, I would be panicking: that would be plenty of time for enemies of the new leadership to run around getting their traps laid, but not enough time for cooler heads to prevail. But we’ve got the best part of five years to get this right. Plenty of time to bring people on board, build bridges and develop working arrangements, and plenty of time to exert pressure on anyone who still needs pressure exerted – but also plenty of time to oppose the government, build the party and leave the country in no doubt about what Labour stands for. There are good and bad times to change the leader of the Opposition; this, I think, is a very good one.
3. Porque Ahora Somos Tantos
One of Victor Jara’s songs of revolutionary optimism, “El hombre es un creador”, is sung in the character of a handyman – someone who’s never known anything but work, and can turn his hand to pretty much anything (“I’ll put the flavour in your wine, I’ll let the smoke out of your factory”). After several verses of good-natured boasting, the song concludes with a sudden pull back and out: “But now I’m standing tall and ready to lend a hand – because now it’s not just me, now there are lots of us”. If one man can do just about anything, the song says, just think what we could all do…
This is not a pre-revolutionary moment: the Left in the Labour Party and in the unions is very weak, and (more importantly) so are the unions themselves; levels of industrial action are still at historic lows. But it’s impossible to look at the success of Corbyn’s campaign – public meetings packed out up and down the country – and not think that now there are lots of us – and something’s happening here.
Or rather, that there are lots of us and we’re doing something – and that in itself makes a pleasant change. Younger readers may be surprised to hear that this was once quite a left-wing country, all things considered: I grew up in a country with publicly-owned utilities, local authority-run bus services, government consultation with union leaders and a 33% base rate of income tax, among other things. Prescriptions were free, you could claim the dole if you were out of work – that was what it was for – and there were no beggars; I was eighteen when I first saw someone begging in the street, and that was on a trip to Spain. In the mid-70s the Right embarked on a massive and determined effort of agenda-setting – changing what was politically thinkable, changing the common sense of the country – and it’s worked beyond their wildest dreams. The Labour Party’s responses have been variously
- to deny it’s happening and take a high moral tone about how the voters know best
- to admit it’s happened but take a high moral tone about being realistic and starting from where we are
- to admit it’s still happening but feel helpless to do anything about it; and
- to join in
(You know how New Labour prided itself on being ‘modern’ and not fighting old battles? That’s what that was about.)
What we’ve seen in the Corbyn campaign, quite unexpectedly, is a sustained attempt at agenda-setting from the Left. Quietly and without any fuss, the Corbyn campaign has been pushing the boundaries of political common sense back towards the Left – or rather, back towards what was the uncontentious political centre ground, in the 1970s and 80s. To say it’s a refreshing change is an understatement: it’s positively liberating. I don’t know what’s going to come of Corbyn’s plans to revitalise the party and democratise policy-making, or how many supporters will actually join the party. But something has at least started to happen, and it’s a good thing to be part of.
But none of these is as important as the last one:
4. Because it’s nice to hear somebody talking a bit of sense
If that sounds a bit too populist, we could go with
4. Because it’s nice to be dealing with somebody who’s a competent politician
– it comes to much the same thing.
It seems to me that there are four very simple, fundamental steps to take when drawing up policy on an issue or reacting to a government initiative. First, check for ignorance and misrepresentation: however worried people are about immigrants from Belarus, if there are no immigrants from Belarus there is no need for measures to control Belarusian migration. Similarly, if the government proposes a Free Beer Bill which includes measures to ban the sale of beer, supporting it would not be a good idea. And if the government proposes a Welfare Reform Bill whose effect will be to make a lot of working people poorer, failing to oppose that is not a good idea – even if lots of people don’t realise it will make working people poorer and consequently think it’s a good idea.
Second, if it’s a question of responding to what people want, check for other-directed preferences. In other words, check whether they want something because it’ll be good for them, or because it’ll be bad for other people and they like that idea. If it’s the latter, it doesn’t matter how many of them want it – they don’t have any right to want it, or to have their desire to see other people suffer taken into account. Ethically, it doesn’t matter that the majority can outvote the minority, if what the majority want is to hurt the minority. (This isn’t an absolute rule: it’s possible to imagine a situation where a minority is favoured so lavishly that it would actually benefit individual members of the majority to end their privileges. Imagine the tax arrangements in a certain country being set up to extract 50p a day from every taxpayer, all of which was then donated to a single family; in this case taxpayers would have good cause for resentment of the parasites living the high life at their expense. But this is an extreme and unlikely example.)
Third, quantify. Benefit fraud is a real problem – of course it is: there are greedy people and liars in all walks of life (even politics), and it’d be ludicrous to expect people who are actually hard up to set an ethical example to the rest of us. But how big a problem is it? In particular, how big a problem is it compared to other problems that we could tackle instead?
Fourth, beware making matters worse. Will the cost of intervening outweigh the savings? Will more people suffer if you intervene than if you don’t? It’s always possible for the government to intervene; it’s not always a good idea.
These are very basic principles. What’s been really heartening about the Corbyn campaign is that he’s stuck to them: in every policy area he’s shown awareness that some problems are bigger than others, that governments don’t always tell the truth about what they’re doing, that government policy sometimes creates its own problems and that people’s ignorance and punitive urges shouldn’t be indulged. So he hasn’t stayed within the terms of debate set by the government and their friends in the media, or the rolling agenda set by whatever the papers say the polls say the people say they’re worried about; equally, he hasn’t wheeled out the old socialist verities in a comforting wuffly voice, or denounced the machinations of imperialism in tones of blood and thunder. He’s just talked sense – realistic, logically argued, morally decent sense – much more consistently and on a much wider range of issues than the other candidates. This gives him a certain populist anti-system appeal at the same time as, ironically, making him a much more effective politician: how are you going to get anything useful done, after all, if you’re committed to kicking unpopular minorities and throwing resources at unsolvable non-problems?
Because he’s talking sense; because this campaign’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be, and we might actually be getting somewhere; because it’s time we had a go, and we’ve got a few years to get things in shape for the election; and because… well, thankyou, Tristram, thankyou, Mr Tony Blair and thankyou, your Lord Mandelship, but no thanks. For all of those reasons I voted for Jeremy Corbyn.
10 September 2015 – 12:32
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
– Bob Dylan
I think a lot of the sound and fury about the Corbyn campaign can be understood better – not that this will make it go away – if we think about what it means to have political allies.
To take an easy case, what does it say about you if you’re involved in politics and you don’t have any allies at all – if you have your own political programme, which is yours and belongs to you, and you never make common cause with anyone? Does it mean you’re a person of principle, an inspiration to the young and a light to the nations? Or does it mean you’re scrupulously avoiding having any practical effect on the world and making sure your political career will be consigned to a footnote? I’m thinking here of every politician who gets too big for their own party, from Kilroy-Silk to Galloway, but also of those politicians who get so attached to the sound of one particular bell that they ring it in the morning and ring it in the evening, till their name and their pet cause become synonymous. The late Willie Hamilton, a Scottish Labour MP, was a good example of this approach. Willie Hamilton was a republican; he believed that the royal family were a waste of public money, and he said so whenever he was asked. He certainly kept republicanism alive as an idea, but for most people the idea in question was “that thing Willie Hamilton’s always banging on about”. Less extreme examples would be Tam Dalyell and the West Lothian Question, or Frank Field and the undeserving poor.
So let’s assume that you’re a politician and that you’re right about everything – I mean, I know I am – but that you want to get things done from time to time. You’re going to have to make alliances, with people who don’t agree with you about everything. Which means they’re wrong about some things – maybe a lot of things. You’re going to have to make alliances with people who believe wrong things. It’s either that or be Willie Hamilton, or Frank Field at a pinch. Sorry – no one ever said politics was easy.
Of course, there are red lines; there are people you’ll never want to ally with for any reason – aren’t there? There are people who will make you take your name off a letter if they sign it, who will make you walk out of a public meeting if they walk in, who will make you reconsider your support for a policy if you find out they support it. And we all know who they are… don’t we?
It seems to me that this assumption, in different forms, has given the Left an enormous amount of trouble over the years. I’ll be honest, I read Homage to Catalonia at a formative age, and I used to be a staunch anti-Communist (it’s one of the few things you can be staunch about). I had absolutely no truck with any apologetics for Stalinism, post-Stalinism or neo-Stalinism, and I wasn’t particularly keen on Leninism (a.k.a. proto-Stalinism). The fact that, at the time I was striking these attitudes, the actually existing Communist Party was made up of equal parts of Scargillites and SDP sympathisers – while the ‘Leninist’ parties were, almost without exception, made up of utter tossers – made it a lot easier to stay truck-free and congratulate myself on being both Socialist and Principled. But you’ve got to ally with somebody, if you’re going to get anything done; the group I was in duly aligned with the Labour left on one hand and carefully selected Leninist tossers on the other. And of course blind eyes were turned; we tended to cough and change the subject when anyone started talking about the class nature of the USSR or which side to support in imperialist wars, or mentioned Ireland. (They all sounded the same…)
When I was wearing my It’s 1940 And I Am Victor Serge hat, I used to think there was a place for a really principled left somewhere to the… well, how to put this… not exactly to the right as such… OK, OK, somewhere a bit to the right of the ‘hard left’; I used to look wistfully at the likes of Chartist and Independent Labour Publications and Tribune and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. The people involved might not get into the Guardian any more often than the hard Left, but at least they weren’t ridiculed when they did – and at least they weren’t asking us to do six impossible things before breakfast (“support the IRA”, “read the Morning Star“). What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was hankering after a position that was itself impossible – not on the hard Left, but not actually against it either. I was aware that, when I talked to contacts at ILP or Tribune, they didn’t observe these niceties, but were quite happy to bang on about Trots, tankies and assorted Labour Left headbangers in a way that seemed quite genuinely hostile – you could almost call it sectarian. But maybe that could be our goal – to be on the soft Left but not against the hard Left, leading by example, sort of thing. Maybe.
As a group we had the luxury of having been established as a cross between a discussion group and a go-between; our goal was to promote debate and co-operation, and ultimately set much larger forces than ourselves in motion. We weren’t a party, in other words, and as such didn’t feel we had to take a position on absolutely everything. So at the time of the Gulf War we were agin it, but didn’t take a definite position between the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf (mostly Labour Left, anti-war) and the Campaign Against War in the Gulf (mostly Trot, anti-imperialist); indeed, with our ‘left unity’ hat on we could argue that it was our job not to take a position between them. (We didn’t have any trouble taking a position with regard to the third anti-war campaign, on the other hand – the Ad Hoc Hands Off the Middle East Committee could sod right off.) Then, a couple of years later, the rest of the Left started to take notice of a region I’d been following for a few years – the soon-to-be-former Yugoslavia – and promptly got it completely wrong. This wasn’t discernibly a soft Left / hard Left thing, though – unless you counted Tony Benn as ‘hard Left’ – so much as an “almost everyone who knows about the area already”/”almost everybody else” thing. There was a ‘soft Left’ tune to be played – the “critique of kneejerk anti-imperialism” one – but at the time it seemed less urgent than “do you actually know what they’re doing out there, who’s doing it and why?”
A few years after that, there was Kosovo – a nation whose cause I’d supported for even longer than that of a united multi-ethnic Bosnia; a conflict which seemed utterly unambiguous in terms of right and wrong; and a conflict where, once again, the Left promptly lined up with the wrong side. Or so I thought. This was the turning-point for me: as the NATO bombing campaign wore on I realised that what I supported was a war of liberation, fought by the Kosovars themselves against the Serbian armed forces – or, ideally, not having to be fought at all, the Kosovars having sufficient armament and support to induce the Serbs to back off. (The ideal outcome in Bosnia would have been similar.) What was happening, on the other hand, was high-level bombing of civilian targets, as part of a war of aggression, fought by a military alliance from outside the region, seeking to impose its own terms on Serbia – terms that included, among other things, the establishment of a free-market economy. In short, it was an illegal war being fought by illegal means by illegitimate combatants in order to dictate unjust terms; the only thing it had in common with the war I thought I was supporting was that Serbia was involved. And this war – the war that was actually taking place – was wrong and, when it came down to it, needed to stop. Ultimately my only disagreement with the “stop the war” crowd – the “anti-NATO” crowd, the “kneejerk anti-imperialist” crowd, the “solidarity with Serbia” crowd – was that I thought the Serbian government had to be defeated and/or overthrown after this was over. I wasn’t alone in finding my way to this position. The group I’d been in had dissolved by this time, but I remember a friend being involved with another small group which had the double slogan STOP THE BOMBING – ARM THE KOSOVARS.
The anti-Communism that I’d grown up with, the anti-Leninism that I’d lived by, the opposition to “kneejerk anti-imperialism” that had made me dislike Chomsky so much – I was starting to wonder what it was worth, really. I could still see the point of being against the people I’d always been against, but I was starting to wonder whether it was really a principled position – and about who I was lining up with. Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper? came out in 1999, and a passage in Francis Mulhern’s Red Pepper review stuck with me:
[The CIA’s] goal was to establish an America-friendly, anti-Soviet hegemony over Europe’s intelligentsias, and to do so by supporting the cultural projects of ‘non-communist lefts’ (‘NCLs’). Reactionaries were of little interest; professional ex-Stalinists such as Arthur Koestler were a nuisance. T.S. Eliot was all very well, but honest George Orwell was a precious resource. The IRD financed campaigns against the New Statesman, thought to be insufficiently hostile to the USSR, but supported Socialist Commentary, the house organ of Labour’s Atlanticist right, as well as Tribune: one anti-Stalinist was as serviceable as another. There is a difficult moral here, worth pausing over even – or especially – in our post-Wall world.
Then all of a sudden our world was no longer post-Wall but post-9/11, and everything was changed, changed utterly – except that the same hard Left was attacking our own government and going easy on their enemies (however vile they might be), and the same soft Left was denouncing them for it. Rather more of us were occupying ‘hard Left’ positions now – apart from anything else I seemed to have become hard Left myself, somewhere along the line. Perhaps this wasn’t too surprising, as the price of admission to the soft Left now seemed to include actually supporting an actual alliance of imperialist powers conducting an actual illegal war of aggression. (Just reporting how it looked from the outside.)
I think there’s a division on the Left which is at once very deep and very impermanent, like a crevasse in sand; there’s a chasm between the two sides, but where that chasm actually is – and how much space there is on each side – changes over the years. (There’s also a real and permanent fault-line, which doesn’t always coincide with the impermanent one; I’ll come back to that.) Which side you’re on will determine where you look for allies – what kind of wrongness you can tolerate in order to get things done: if you’re on the ‘soft Left’ side, attitudes to the EU may be negotiable, but having the wrong position on the former USSR won’t be permitted. The wrongness of our allies is something we can turn a blind eye to – it’s called practical politics. The wrongness of our opponents’ allies, on the other hand, is a glaring and inexcusable fault: in fact, the very fact that they can have allies who are so wrong demonstrates how wrong they are. This – never particularly productive – approach has surely reached its nadir now, with people being accused of having allies who sympathise with IS, by people whose allies include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
There’s something cultural – almost temperamental – about the ‘soft Left’/’hard Left’ division: a preference one way or the other (thinking that the Morning Star is a well-produced, informative paper, or that the SWP are disruptive headbangers) doesn’t automatically give you beliefs to match (opposing British troops being used anywhere or thinking the Iraq war was a good idea, respectively). Those preferences do mean that you’re more likely to meet people who do have the ‘matching’ beliefs – but not that you’ll only meet people with those beliefs, or that your own beliefs will have to be moulded to fit. Back in the 90s, Chartist and Briefing may have squared off against each other as soft- and hard-Left respectively, but they were both genuinely pluralistic groups with a lot of overlap between them. (Chartist – which is still around, with some of the same people involved – has come out for Corbyn.)
When the Kosovo conflict began and the SWP leapt to express solidarity with Milosevic – at least, to express a solidarity with the Serbian people which didn’t seem to exclude endorsement of their government – I remember feeling that this was something different: a real line was being drawn, and people we had thought to be allies were turning out to have a very different project of their own. I think now I was wrong twice over – in overstating the permanence of the line being drawn and in the side I put myself on. I also think that an enduring line was drawn a few years later – over Iraq and over the reaction to the 7/7 bombings. Or rather, the hard/soft line was drawn so as to coincide with the underlying, permanent fault-line I referred to earlier: the fault-line between imperialism and anti-imperialism. Think of it in terms of the difference between rivalry and opposition. As between two rivals, one can’t succeed without the other one failing; when one rival does defeat the other, anything the first rival has achieved is likely to be rolled back. Nevertheless, both have a shared cause, even if they understand it differently; either one would be glad to have the other as a collaborator, if only they would abandon their rivalry. Between two opponents, for one to succeed is to make the other fail: the two have opposed causes, and it’s unimaginable that one could collaborate with the other. The hard Left and the soft Left are rivals for the Labour Party; imperialism and anti-imperialism are opponents.
Essentially, the old soft Left has ended up positively committed to supporting aggressive wars conducted by imperialist powers. Positive support for imperialism has never been universally popular on the Left, if only because it goes against both left-wing and liberal principles, it’s supported by the Right and there’s nothing left-wing about it. If the soft Left – which has never been pro-imperialist by definition – had had a look round after Iraq and backed quietly out of the corner it had talked itself into, the damage might have been rectified. Instead, many of them now seem to be determined to talk themselves further in. The clearer this becomes, the less popular the soft Left gets – and the less of a stumbling-block the hard Left’s choice of allies starts to appear. I think over the summer a lot of people have started to feel that, firstly, there are more important things in politics than who a person’s allies are, particularly given that an ally is (by definition) somebody you don’t agree with on everything; and, secondly, that on some of those important things, the hard Left may actually be more right than wrong, and the soft Left (at least in its current form) a lot more wrong than right.
All this, as may have become apparent, is by way of a response to ‘Bob from Brockley’ and his ‘vague sense of worry and depression’ (my words) about some of Jeremy Corbyn’s allies and connections. On mature consideration – and speaking as somebody for whom, at one time, the wrong kind of anti-imperialist allies would have been an instant deal-breaker – I’m disposed to be a bit firm with regard to this one. On the hard Left/soft Left level, as far as I’m concerned the whole question of allies is fluff. Everyone has allies; we don’t agree with them about everything; we turn a blind eye to our allies’ shortcomings and make a big deal of those of our enemies’ allies. My friend and colleague voted in support of General Jaruzelski’s restoration of order in Poland? A perfectly legitimate opinion in historical retrospect! (Thinks: tankie bastard, I knew he’d be trouble.) Your ally was wined and dined by a private healthcare provider? An all-too-typical example of the corruption which is destroying democracy! (Thinks: what an idiot, he didn’t even need to declare that.) And so on. If a dodgy friend or contact is influencing our man’s opinions or judgments, show us the opinions or judgments which have been affected and we’ll talk about them. Otherwise, it’s fluff.
To the extent that it runs deeper than that – to the extent that a political opponent has allies that you can’t imagine associating with under any circumstances whatsoever – I suspect that what’s really going on is an opposition that runs deeper than that: that is, a case of true opposition rather than rivalry. This, of course, is why the old Cold War rivalries on the Left were sometimes so bitter: somebody who wanted to defend ‘actually existing socialism’ and somebody who wanted to undermine it may have been rivals within the British Left, but on the broader stage they were opponents. We don’t tend to turn a blind eye to our rivals’ defects at the best of times; we certainly aren’t going to be that charitable if we’re positively opposed to what our rivals want to achieve. But here again the actual question of allies is, ultimately, fluff. If, at the end of the day, you’re opposed to Jeremy Corbyn because he’s a consistent anti-imperialist, it won’t matter whether he’s been hanging out with Gerry Adams, Vinnie Jones or the Pope – just as, for his supporters, it doesn’t matter whether Tony Blair hangs out with Islam Karimov, Khaled Meshaal or George W. Bush.
If Jeremy Corbyn wins this election, he’ll be the first genuinely anti-imperialist leader of the Labour Party for a long time – possibly the first ever. Many people, unfortunately, will oppose him for that reason. I just wish they’d acknowledge that they do oppose him for that reason, rather than maintaining that they’re ‘raising concerns’ about his ‘judgment’ and so on. Maybe the reason that these ‘concerns’ are having so little impact on Corbyn’s support is that this isn’t just another case of rivalry within the Left. Maybe we’re not actually on the same side here.
29 August 2015 – 11:55
There’s something accidental about the Corbyn campaign; nobody, from Jeremy on down, expected it to be like this. On his own admission, Corbyn wasn’t chosen as a sure-fire election-winner (even an internal party election-winner) but because somebody needed to represent the Left and, broadly speaking, it was his turn. So Corbyn wasn’t grooming himself for this campaign for years beforehand (or months, for that matter). With that in mind, I’ve been braced for things to get nasty in the media, to at least “Ralph Miliband Hated Britain” levels of nastiness. You can’t be an active and committed left-winger for forty years without leaving a few hostages to fortune, and making a lot of enemies who will be only too happy to exploit them. To my great surprise – if not downright bemusement – it hasn’t really happened. Obviously the Telegraph and the Mail haven’t been particularly friendly, and the New Statesman‘s been downright vicious, but all that is pretty much par for the course. (Shame about the Staggers.) I remember how the media monstered Livingstone, Benn and Tatchell, and this is nothing like that; in fact I think even Neil Kinnock would have reason to feel Corbyn was getting off lightly.
Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the beginnings of a fresh wave of attacks on Corbyn, nastier and potentially more effective than anything he’s been hit with before. I say ‘potentially’; I don’t know whether this stuff is reaching an audience to speak of, and suspect it may just be rallying a group of people who already think that way. It is nasty, though, and it doesn’t seem to be dying down. But the attackers, weirdly enough, aren’t the Mail or the Murdoch press, or Peter Mandelson or Tristram Hunt, or even John Sodding McTernan (although, classy as ever, he has tagged along). These attacks are coming from… Euston.
You read that right: it’s the Euston Manifesto crowd – the street-fighters of Standpoint, the intellectual wing of Engage. In terms of the people involved it’s Aaro and Nick, and it’s Harry’s Place and Left Foot Forward, and Norm sadly can’t be with us but we have some self-styled Gerasites (some of them surely too young to have had much overlap with the great man). In terms of the themes, it’s all about opposition to reactionary Islamists and anti-semites, considered as the first duty of any leftist with a brain and a conscience – all the more so when those people present themselves to the untrained eye as Muslim radicals and anti-Zionists. And in terms of method it’s all about denunciation, dissociation, denouncing anyone who fails to dissociate and dissociating from anyone who fails to denounce; it’s all about will you condemn and why didn’t he condemn and why haven’t you condemned him; it’s all about guilt by association, guilt by implication, guilt by omission and in some cases guilt by analogy (would you say the same about…). It’s also not about condemning or denouncing or pronouncing guilt at all – dear me no, heaven forfend! No, it’s just a matter of raising questions. Then demanding answers, then raising them again, then asking why they haven’t been answered – and then starting again and raising the question of what we can conclude from the failure to answer the original questions.
Basically it’s too, too 2006 to put a finger on. It’s an odd little social formation. I mean, I’m sure it’s possible to be vigilant against anti-semitism on the Left without being a smug, tedious bully, and I honestly don’t know why the two should tend to go together; all I know is that over the last decade they have done. The experience of arguing with these people is not rewarding, to say the least; weirdly, it reminds me of nothing so much as trying to argue with devotees of Chomsky.
What of our man Corbyn? Well, it seems he’s been hanging out with some nutters. It seems that he’s attended a Palestinian solidarity event organised by Deir Yassin Remembered – a group which the Palestine Solidarity Campaign had themselves broken with, due to the group’s associations with Holocaust denial. It also seems that he’s praised an Interpal organiser warmly and without qualification, despite this person having denounced homosexuality as a sin on a par with paedophilia.
Now, if you start from the position that the Left is rife with anti-semitism and pro-Islamism, and your stock in trade is denouncing the implications of this, calling for dissociation from that and raising questions about the other, obviously you’ll eat all this up with a big spoon; from that point of view none of this is very surprising. The phrase ‘tediously predictable’ comes to mind. But on another level it still puzzles me. Why does all this matter, even to those for whom it evidently does matter? Bob from Brockley emphasises that the DYR story “does not mean Corbyn is an anti-semite (and no one serious is saying so)”; James Bloodworth is even more emphatic, assuring us that “I genuinely believe that Corbyn does not have an antisemitic bone in his body”. Which is fair enough; if there were evidence that Corbyn was anti-semitic – that he had contributed to identifiably anti-semitic campaigns or voted for identifiably anti-semitic policies, at some point in his 40-year political career – presumably these writers and those they quote would be all over it. As for gay rights, to my knowledge nobody’s even gone to the effort of affirming that they sincerely don’t believe Corbyn is homophobic – that dog isn’t going to hunt.
So why does it matter? If there’s a mismatch between the moral worth of someone’s words and that of their public, consequential deeds, surely we only need to worry if it’s the words that are the good part. If a Labour leftist works with a homophobe or sits next to a racist – sod it, if a Labour MP counts a homophobe as a personal friend and attends an event organised by a racist – and then goes right on voting against racism and homophobia, why should we care?
A variety of answers have been given to this question, none of which I really find persuasive. Bloodworth’s article is peculiar, and I tend to feel he protests too much: if he genuinely didn’t believe Corbyn was an antisemite, surely he wouldn’t think it necessary to pass judgment on whether his ‘excuses’ for apparently associating with anti-semites ‘stand up’, or whether his ‘denials’ were sufficiently ‘forceful or convincing’. We’re back to the same question: what does Corbyn have to excuse or deny, other than the anti-semitism of which nobody’s accusing him? Bloodworth doesn’t tell us: by the end of his article Corbyn’s just some guy, an eccentric with erratic judgment, no harm done. The real problems are the public indifference to foreign policy which makes his career possible (“a politician can at present take almost any position on foreign affairs and get away with it”) and the other candidates’ failure to challenge him; this “shows that the Labour party – and the left more generally – no longer takes antisemitism seriously”. But, but… if Corbyn isn’t an anti-semite – and we all agree that he isn’t – then… It’s all a bit “Brutus is an honourable man” – of course Corbyn’s not anti-semitic, nobody’s saying he’s anti-semitic, but still, you know… when you look at the evidence… kind of makes you think… not saying just saying… Faugh.
As for ‘Bob’, he finds Corbyn’s association with DYR “really worrying”, but – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – why?
Corbyn should have abided by the PSC decision [to break with DYR] and kept well away from them. That he didn’t says something very depressing about him – either that he doesn’t believe serious anti-racists when they talk about Holocaust denial, or he doesn’t care.
I don’t believe these are the only two possible interpretations, but for now let’s pick the second one: let’s assume that Corbyn, while not himself a racist, genuinely ‘doesn’t care’ whether his friends and associates adhere to lunatic racist fantasies. It seems pretty unlikely, but for the sake of argument let’s go there. Now: why would this matter? If this weirdly, stupidly, distressingly tolerant attitude doesn’t actually affect the causes Corbyn campaigns for or the policies he votes for – which apparently it doesn’t – then how can it matter? Turning it round, if this attitude doesn’t find any expression what Corbyn actually does – the effect he has on the world as a politician – perhaps it’d make more sense to conclude that he doesn’t actually hold it. Perhaps there’s a third option as well as ‘doesn’t believe’ and ‘doesn’t care’ – something along the lines of ‘cares as much about Holocaust denial as the next sane person, but took the judgment call on this occasion that the PSC decision didn’t justify his breaking with a group with which he’d previously formed political and personal links’.
A third critique of Corbyn in this area is encapsulated in an argument I had on Twitter the other night, and which I’ve Storified here. It’s the argument from moral consistency: if Corbyn were a true opponent of bigotry he’d oppose it at all times and in all places, and not only when (say) voting in the House of Commons. I suggested in response that Corbyn might be guilty of nothing worse than compartmentalising – in this case, thinking of a homophobic Islamist as a good guy and a solid ally within the context of Palestinian solidarity work, as in that context the guy presumably was. This was met with a flurry of would you say the same about (what if Corbyn was saying nice things about somebody from Golden Dawn? what then, eh?) and the oracular pronouncement “‘Compartmentalising’ is a pretentious way of saying ‘hypocrisy’.” Well, that’s me told. (And the three-for-one accusation that one is not only (1) saying something unacceptable but (2) trying to hide it and (3) putting on airs is very Euston. Tom’s learnt from the masters.)
I find this quite bizarre. As I say in the Storify story, compartmentalising surely means nothing more than living life without applying a single set of ethico-political criteria to every encounter. Not only is this something which pretty much everybody does pretty much all the time, it’s something that politicians need to do more than most: just to get the job done, they need to be capable of a certain amount of inconsistency, insincerity and bluff, to put forward imperfect and inconstant policy positions as if they believed in them deeply and personally, to make multiple different audiences feel they’ve heard what they wanted to hear. Taken seriously and consistently – applied everywhere all the time – the demand for moral consistency is deeply unworldly: it’s not something you’d ask from your friends, colleagues or employers, let alone from anyone aspiring to be a political operator. If the same standard is weaponised and applied selectively – if, say, we demand moral consistency of our opponents while proclaiming that our allies are already exhibiting it – it’s just rhetoric and can be ignored.
In short(!) the Eustonite charges against Corbyn aren’t, ultimately, all that; in terms of denunciation and delegitimation we’re still facing the B team. They seem to boil down to smears and insinuations, the selective application of unachievable or inappropriate moral standards, and a vague sense of worry and depression. I take the third of these – as expressed by ‘Bob’ – the most seriously; in another post I’ll come back to an issue which I think it points to, and which may also underlie the other two types of attack. For now, here’s what I made of the Euston Manifesto back in April 2006. Share and enjoy.
14 August 2015 – 08:44
Some final thoughts on the Corbyn campaign and why I support it, based on a comment (my own!) on this interesting CT thread.
It hasn’t been much of a battle, this campaign; more like an unopposed run with hecklers. I suppose that’s easy to say now, but it’s been the case since quite early on; it’s as if we’re watching some bizarrely slanted TV debate, in which Corbyn is given five minutes to expound his policies followed by ten seconds from each of the other candidates, who can only blurt out a disapproving one-liner – “Ooh, no!” “Don’t think so!” “Don’t listen to him!” “I’ll tell you what he really thinks!” – before their mike gets cut. Of course, the other four candidates have had just as much time as Corbyn to set out their policies, and a much friendlier media environment – so it’s curious, to say no more than that, that the debate has been so limited, and the other candidates’ interventions so light on content.
For Corbyn sympathisers there’s been a lot of tutting and hooting to deal with, and it has been a bit trying. Two of the more irritating lines, from my perspective, have been the charges that Corbyn’s supporters have only just heard of him and that his policies are somehow reactionary, a throwback to the 1970s and 80s. I voted in the 1979 election, as it goes, and I’ve been aware of Corbyn for a good long time; I’ve always thought he was pretty much a good thing – very reliable on security & counter-terrorism issues – but a bit of a Campaign Group type, quiet, earnest variety (probably the best variety of CG type). As for going back to the 1970s, I think there’s a category error here, which we can see if we ask the question does everything always change for the better? Some things are worth going back to; come to that, some things are worth keeping as they are, rather than changing (or breaking) them in an endless quest for ‘modernity’ or ‘reform’. (Ask any teacher.)
So I was pleased he got on the ballot, in the spirit of flying the flag for the Labour Left; I didn’t think of him as the next Labour leader at that stage, and I very much doubt he did either. To begin with I was delighted at the way his campaign started to take off, but also surprised and, if I’m honest, slightly amused – poor old Jeremy, bet he wasn’t expecting this… I signed up, though, and bunged the Corbyn campaign a fiver when they asked; it seemed like a good idea to keep up the momentum.
Then something happened; it was called the welfare vote, together with Harman’s awful, craven line about listening to the British people. I think that was the biggest boost Corbyn could have asked for; it wasn’t just the fact that he was the only candidate willing to oppose a vicious and mean policy, but something deeper: a sense of if not now, when? Let’s not forget that the welfare bill rolls back New Labour policies – we’re not talking about collective ownership of the means of production here. So the decision to abstain, however clever it may have been in the world of parliamentary eleven-dimensional chess, was met with anger, incredulity and impatience: if Labour doesn’t oppose that, what’s it for?
And then there’s this vote that they’ve seen fit to give us. Well then. They want to know what we want? Now, they want to know what we want? Shall we tell them?
So that’s part of it: I support Corbyn because (a) I’m an old leftie anyway and more importantly (b) when it comes to pushing for Labour to move to the Left, I really feel the time for holding back has gone. Another really important element is (c) the reforms to the party, and the party’s policy-making structures, that Corbyn’s advocating (and will continue to advocate even if he loses): a party that makes policy from the membership up could do a lot to revitalise British political life, which could do with a bit of revitalising (see previous post, and earlier comments on the importance of turnout).
We’re now into a third stage: the stage where it actually looks as if Corbyn’s going to win. Can I see him as a party leader? Yes; I think he and Tom Watson, in particular, could make rather a good team. (I’ve seen John McTernan’s bizarre conspiracy theory – or rather, conspiracy proposal – involving the immediate defenestration of Corbyn followed by a “Watson interregnum”. I share John Prescott’s view of John McTernan.) Would Corbyn get crucified by the press? I guess so, but I have to say they’ve been remarkably forbearing up to now; it may be that they’re saving the good stuff till later, but I think it may just be that they’re not quite sure what to do with him. Would he have trouble with the parliamentary party? Indubitably – which is why I’m voting for Tom Watson. Could he win the next election? If the party doesn’t tear itself apart, and if the mobilisation continues, and if opposition – genuine opposition – becomes a way of life for the Labour Party, I wouldn’t rule it out (and neither would Kenneth Clarke). Even if Labour didn’t win under Corbyn in 2020, I don’t believe they could win under Burnham or Cooper – and I’d much rather they spent the next five years shifting the political spectrum to the Left than acquiescing in Osborne & co shifting it to the Right. As I say, I really think the time for holding back is gone.
I don’t know how far it’s going to go; I don’t know if Corbyn can become party leader, or if he’ll be allowed to stay party leader, or how well he’ll handle PMQs and Paxman, or how big a bomb the friends of Israel and hunters of anti-semitism are going to manage to put under him, or what state the party will be in by 2020, or anything. But I can see hope for Labour in one direction and nothing but decline and irrelevance in the other. I’m voting for hope.
13 August 2015 – 20:42
One more quick thought before my last post on this subject.
I agree with Chris, up to a point.
Rather than being a technical matter of putting the right people into the right jobs, the leadership election has become a “battle on for the soul of our party” – which is the natural cost of having a winner-take-all election. … Despite New Labour’s belief that politicians should learn from business, the party is behaving in an utterly unbusinesslike way. This is because it has for years been in the grip of the ideology of leadership, a belief that all will be well if only the right leader can be found.
One of my rare moments of disenchantment with the leadership election came when I realised that we were all acting as if the leader of the party set the direction of the party: elect Kendall, get a right-wing party; elect Corbyn, get a left-wing party. But this way of looking at it is profoundly undemocratic – and an older Labour left would have seen this. The point is to build for a left-wing party within the party; that way, a left-wing leadership will be grounded in, and held to account by, a left-wing membership, which in turn will both revitalise and respond to the broader working class.
We are, of course, a very long way from making that a reality; not only is the level of struggle in society woefully low, but the structures within the party which could have made this a possibility have been systematically dismantled. (The media’s managerialist cult of leadership certainly made this easier, but we need to place the blame for this where it belongs: with New Labour and “Party into Power”. Those policy-making structures wouldn’t have transformed themselves – somebody did that to the party.) So far from being an autonomous presence in civil society, communicating policy directions to the leadership, the Labour Party is little more than a set of local fan clubs for the policy directions set by the leadership. But that’s a real loss, and one which can’t be remedied by parachuting in the right kind of leader.
So I was pleased to read this from John McDonnell a few weeks back, soon after John Prescott’s intervention in the campaign:
I share John Prescott’s view that everyone should just calm down and think seriously about the long-term future of the party and the people we seek to represent.
To reassure everyone that whatever the outcome of the leadership election we have a process for uniting the party, I am writing to propose a process to be adopted immediately following the election result that would ensure the fullest inclusion of everyone within the party in determining the party’s strategy for the coming period, its policy programme and its decision making processes. In this way nobody would feel excluded and everybody would have a democratic say.
This involves ensuring that the direction of the party rests firmly in the hands of our members. I propose that immediately following the leadership election the new leader announces that all the leadership candidates will be given the joint responsibility of organising a wide-ranging and detailed consultation on the party’s political strategy, policy programme and internal party decision-making processes.
For this process of party membership engagement at local CLP and regional levels to take place over a three month period culminating in a recall annual conference to take the final decisions on strategy, policy programme and democratic reform. In this way the future direction of the party will be placed firmly in the hands of its members and so that the party can come together to oppose the Tories and the clear political strategy they are embarking upon which is so damaging to so many people in this country.
Whoever wins the election – which is to say, even if Cooper or Burnham somehow manages to pull it back at this stage – I sincerely hope that this proposal or something very like it can be implemented. I’m sure the Right will cry foul – all this talk of including “everyone within the party”, it’s not going to give the focus groups what they want, is it? Nor is it entirely surprising to find that a veteran left-winger’s recommendations for promoting party unity resemble reforms previously advocated by the Left.
But, putting aside the labels and the name-calling, something like this is going to have to be done if Labour is going to be rebuilt as a party. And if the decade of rightward drift and ever-declining participation has taught us anything, it’s taught us that Labour needs to be rebuilt as a party. That way lies democratic policy-making; that way lies a party that genuinely represents its members and voters; that way lies a functioning party with unity of purpose. There is no other way but decline.
13 August 2015 – 00:42
On the train the only person who said much was the writer, who would sometimes stare out of the window and make a cryptic remark for no apparent reason, though it was always aimed at me.
“Wee hard men!” he muttered as the train pulled out of Falkirk. “The curse of Scotland is these wee hard men. I used to blame the English for our mediocrity. I thought they had colonised us by sheer cunning. They aren’t very cunning. They’ve got more confidence and money than we have, so they can afford to lean back and smile while our own wee hard men hammer Scotland down to the same dull level as themselves.”
Brian said wearily, “Leave Jock alone will you? He was one of us before the journalists and the police put their boots in.”
– Alasdair Gray, 1982 Janine
If you’re thinking about Scotland at the moment, politically speaking, you have to be thinking about what happened at this year’s election – which is to say, what happened in the 2011 election, happened again at last year’s referendum and happened even more emphatically at this year’s election. Back in March – before the most dramatic confirmation his thesis could have had – Ken MacLeod put forward a startling analogy:
Scotland was never socialist, and Labour never ran a one-party state. But — all proportions guarded, all caveats made — the cliches to the contrary contain more than a grain of truth. … It’s belatedly struck me that many features of the Yes campaign, and its post-referendum continuation in the SNP surge, come sharply into focus if you see what’s going on as a colour revolution against Labour Scotland.
On one side, a generation of entitled hacks whose imaginations have grown to fit their office chairs; they have nothing to offer these young people demanding hope and change, except the bland assurance that this generation will eventually settle down and vote for them, just like the one before and the one before that. On the other, a turbulent, disorganised movement, the vehicle for diverse and contradictory hopes and dreams, united by nothing except the feeling that things have got to change – and the conviction that that’s all the unity they need. We know how this one plays out.
And Scotland was – with the wisdom of hindsight – peculiarly ripe for this kind of upheaval. Thinking about the kind of people likely to have voted Yes last year – and the even larger range of people who voted SNP this year – I found myself thinking of 1982 Janine, the quoted passage (for some reason) in particular. Who, in that amazing novel’s dramatis personae, wouldn’t vote SNP? The young Jock – the narrator’s 1950s younger self – is a working-class Scot who has learnt by experience that society is an unjust, exploitative racket and that Scottish society has the additional burden of the English squatting on top of the pile. The older Jock is a disillusioned Conservative voter – if society’s a racket, best get in with the people who are doing well out of it – who makes it a rule never to think about politics, the then-recent devolution referendum included, because if he does he’s liable to fly into a helpless rage. Consciously at least, he has no illusions about nationalism – in one beautiful scene he finds tears welling up when he’s watching football on TV and hears the crowd singing “Flower of Scotland”; despising his own weakness, he carefully tilts his head back so that the tears will not be shed, and holds the position until they have evaporated. (“Since the age of thirteen I have not shed a single tear,” he says elsewhere.)
It’s not just Jock. The young Jock’s lover Denny is working-class and poorly-educated; she wishes she knew geography so that she could tell whether it was better to donate to Korea or to give the money to her cousin who lives in a slum down the road. The middle-aged Jock’s lover Sontag is a socialist, feminist and “sexual missionary”: “I was Scotland, something frozen and dumb which she was going to liberate.” Jock’s wife Helen is the lower middle-class daughter of a tightly-wound small businessman: very respectable, very Scottish. ‘The writer’ of the quote at the top is a working-class Scot whose hatred for the English and belief in the potential of Scotland is undercut by resentment of the Scottish talent for self-destruction. Jock’s friend and hero Alan is a charming and witty mechanical genius who seems to have no interest in politics; we’ll come back to him. And then there’s that crowd at the football match, and everyone who’s sentimental enough to listen to “Flower of Scotland” and let the tears fall. Even the wee hard men themselves – well, I remember George Galloway advocating what he was pleased to call a “Naw” vote, but I think there are wee hard men enough on the Yes side.
The point isn’t that Alasdair Gray is a nationalist who was writing in the long, bitter aftermath of the devolution referendum, although this is true (“If we ran that race again we would win by a head and neck so we won’t be allowed to run it again,” thinks Jock). It’s certainly not to criticise Gray for writing variations on a single character – on the contrary, these characters have next to nothing in common, except that every one of them would have been a Scottish nationalist in 2014 and 2015. Socialist nationalist? Conservative nationalist? Sentimental nationalist? Embittered, misanthropic former nationalist? Disillusioned, self-hating former socialist nationalist? Welcome, welcome! Never mind all the qualifications now – just hop on board. Next stop, the bright unwritten national future!
As for the Leonardo-like Alan, he dies young in an accident. Jock muses that if he had lived “Scotland would now have an independent government … Alan would have worked on Scotland like a few ounces of yeast on many tons of malt, he would have fermented these arselickers and instruments, these stoical and hysterical losers into a sensible coherent people”. It turns out that Alan isn’t a Scottish nationalist: he is Scottish nationalism. It’s presented as a school of character: to be a nationalist is to stand on your own two feet, solve your own problems and face the future with confidence. Not to be a nationalist is to be servile or cowed – given the chance to stand up, why wouldn’t you? Again, I don’t think this is just about Alasdair Gray’s politics; I think this is how nationalism, or a political movement borne on nationalism (like the colour revolutions), can present itself to a lot of people at certain moments – and how Scottish nationalism presents itself to an awful lot of people right now.
What does all this have to do with the Corbyn campaign? Two things: arithmetic and an early warning. Firstly and most obviously, there are those forty seats that Labour lost last time; if we simply kissed Scotland goodbye we’d be left with the challenge of securing an overall majority, over the other English and Welsh parties and the SNP, on the basis of English and Welsh seats alone. John Curtice – he of the unbelievable exit poll – estimates that to do this Labour would need to have a lead of 12.5% over the Conservatives. I’m not saying that’s unachievable by definition – a lot can change in five years – but it would be nice to have a Plan B in case Labour’s recovery doesn’t quite scale those heights. The question then is, what approach is going to be best suited to winning support back from the SNP, given the tsunami-like wave of sentimentality, resentment, creativity and hope that they’re currently riding. Is it, for example, the approach exemplified by Jim Murphy? You’ll remember that Murphy insisted throughout the campaign that he would throw the election to the Tories sooner than co-operate with the SNP; not only that, he maintained that this was the right approach, and that even trying to form a Labour/SNP coalition would be unsportsmanlike and improper. It’s hard to imagine a better example of the bankruptcy of late Blairism – the hectoring insistence that only one route was correct, and that Labour and its supporters must rule out all others, was still there, but it was linked to no positive content at all.
Labour was particularly ill-advised in selecting Jim Murphy – beside him, Gordon Brown sounded like Tony Benn – but Murphy’s proprietary attitude to the Labour voters of Scotland, and his obdurate incomprehension of the nationalist wave, wasn’t untypical. But if Labour is to win back more than a couple of those 40 seats, the wagging finger of sensible, moderate Unionism isn’t going to cut it. I see no sign from any of the other three candidates that they have either the inclination or the ability to tap into a mood of transformative optimism North of the border – but, unless the nationalist wave subsides a lot quicker than currently seems likely, that is what Labour is going to have to do. The arithmetic is unforgiving: Labour’s path back to Downing St is going to have to pass through those 40 seats. Which means that, for anyone who genuinely cares about the electability of the Labour party, the next leader must be a sincere, no-nonsense Left candidate untainted by Blairism. What luck that there’s one standing!
There’s also the possibility – an interesting possibility, to say the least – that the SNP surge, together with the UKIP surge and the Green surge, was symptomatic of something larger: a new volatility in British politics, a new level of disenchantment with the old parties and the old political assumptions. Again, all of this may have drained quietly away by 2020, but I wouldn’t bank on it. Just as in Scotland, there’s an odd mixture of resentment, impatience and genuine hope abroad. A lot of people are starting to think that the old ways of doing politics are broken; that they don’t want to wait any longer to vote for something and someone they actually believe in; and that it might just work. Running a campaign like this within the Labour Party is perhaps asking for trouble – or it may just end up creating trouble for the party. I do wonder whether, in 2020, the SNP surge will seem less like a freak storm and more like the way politics normally works. Needless to say, if we are heading into choppy political waters, the very last people we want in charge of the Labour Party are veterans of a period when political loyalties were unchanging and political participation was in steady decline. Again, the case for Corbyn turns out to be practical – tactical, even – as well as ideological; he could be the best candidate for these times.
If you haven’t registered to vote by now, you’ve missed out. Tomorrow I’ll wrap up this series with some thoughts about the Corbyn campaign, now that the serious business is starting.
6 August 2015 – 16:31
Apologies to anyone waiting for the Scottish post, but this came up on Twitter last night and I wanted to write it up properly.
Peter Jukes in the Indie:
Jeremy Corbyn was wrong to even suggest on Tuesday that Tony Blair could face war crimes trials for [Iraq] … Many argue, quite cogently, the Iraq invasion was “illegitimate” without a second UN Security Council vote. But to my knowledge this is not the same as being “illegal” in accordance with any war crimes convention in international law. (Kofi Annan indicated in 2004 it “it was not in conformity with the UN charter” but that is a very different thing.)
There’s a certain amount of double-talk going on here. Here’s Corbyn suggesting that Blair could face war crimes trials:
Asked on BBC Newsnight whether Blair should stand trial on war crimes charges, Corbyn said: “If he has committed a war crime, yes. Everybody who has committed a war crime should be.” … He said: “It was an illegal war. I am confident about that. Indeed Kofi Annan confirmed it was an illegal war and therefore [Tony Blair] has to explain to that. Is he going to be tried for it? I don’t know. Could he be tried for it? Possibly.”
And here’s Annan on illegality and non-conformity with the UN Charter:
In an interview … he was asked outright if the war was illegal. He replied: “Yes, if you wish.” He then added unequivocally: “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.”
It seems to me that the distinction between “illegitimacy” and illegality is a bit of a red herring, as is the insistence on talking in terms of “war crimes”. The jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court formally covers both jus in bello (under the heading of crimes against humanity) and jus ad bellum (the crime of aggression); however, the crime of aggression remains undefined and consequently can’t as yet be referred to the Court. Blair could conceivably be referred to the ICC for illegalities in the conduct of the Iraq invasion, although this seems highly unlikely for several reasons. What can’t happen, pending amendments to the Rome Charter, is an international prosecution for initiating the invasion. And this is what’s chiefly at issue when we’re talking about Corbyn’s position on Iraq: the legality of the invasion in international law is the question on which Corbyn is clearly and unequivocally on the other side of the argument from Tony Blair, Peter Goldsmith, Burnham, Cooper, Kendall et al.
In discussion on Twitter sparked by the Jukes article, Carl Gardner cited this 2010 post in which he came down on the side of the invasion being legal. It’s detailed, closely-argued and well worth reading (as Carl’s posts generally are), although I don’t agree with its conclusions (as I generally don’t). For the purposes of this post I want to focus on a minor point made in the course of Carl’s conclusion:
I agree with Lord Goldsmith’s advice of 7 March 2003, first that the safer course would be to seek a second resolution authorising force; the UK did that, of course, and failed; and second, that the “revival” argument, that further material breach by Iraq would revive the authorisation of force in UNSCR 678, is a reasonable one. I’d go further, in fact: I agree with what Lord Goldsmith seems to have concluded a few days later – that the “revival” theory is the better view, to be preferred to the alternative put forward by Elizabeth Wilmshurst, that resolution 1441 clearly required a further decision by the Security Council. She told the Chilcot Inquiry that the wording of resolution 1441 had this effect … that was what made the position different from 1998 [when the US and Britain bombed Iraq], when as I’ve said she had agreed with the revival theory (though she now thinks it was “strained” even then).
In any event, the fact that Elizabeth Wilmshurst’s change of approach since 1998 turns on a detailed construction of 1441 shows the question is not an easy or obviously one-sided one. The fact that two views are possible is enough, in my view, to reject wild, overblown and rhetorical claims that Tony Blair is a “war criminal”, for example.
Carl’s 2010 argument – the minor one at the end of this quote – and Peter Jukes’s argument about what Corbyn should and shouldn’t have said have something in common. As we can see, Corbyn didn’t claim that Blair should be seen as a war criminal – he didn’t take any position on that question at all. What he didn’t do, however, was rule it out: he included Blair among those people who could, in some imaginable real-world circumstances, be prosecuted for war crimes. I don’t think it’s over-reading to say that this – the non-dismissal or failure to exclude – is the ‘suggestion’ which Jukes and others find objectionable. Conversely, Carl in 2010 pointed out – correctly – that there is more than one view on the relationship between UN 678 and UN 1441, and between the pair of them and the Iraq invasion itself; he then argued that this plurality of views was sufficient to rule out the possibility of claiming that Blair was a war criminal. But surely this doesn’t follow: if there are multiple ways in which reasonable people can read the materials that determine whether the invasion was legal, presumably one of those views may be that it was illegal and should be prosecuted as soon as amendments to the Rome Charter make it possible. (At which point claims that Blair was a war criminal would be improper, but only because the matter was sub judice.)
What Carl’s post expresses here, it seems to me, is something similar to Jukes’s objection to Corbyn. The argument (on this point) is not that labelling Blair as a war criminal is incorrect, but that this view should not be held by anyone: this position should not be denied but excluded, dismissed, ruled out of consideration. And it should be excluded because it’s “wild” and “overblown”; it doesn’t have a place on the spectrum of valid and reasonably-held beliefs. Even Corbyn’s mild and measured comments, for Jukes, were a dangerous diversion from how politics should be conducted. It’s as if the expression of some beliefs is, in itself, hostile to all other beliefs – as if some beliefs could not be expressed within a debate but only by heckling.
What’s going on here? Let’s take a quick detour into the philosophy of language. (Don’t ask why I’ve been reading philosophy of language.)
In ordinary usage we tend to think that there’s no difference between making a statement S and making the quotative meta-statement “S is true”: the same information is conveyed by the two statements “There is snow on the ground.” and “If somebody says ‘there’s snow on the ground,’ they’re telling the truth.” But this leads us into some difficulties. Say that your friend Jo asks about your mutual friend Harry’s dog: is it well? You’d heard that Harry was getting a dog but don’t know anything about it; you want to change the subject, so you give what seems the most acceptable answer: “It’s fine, Harry’s dog is fine.” Later you discover that Harry had planned to get a dog but thought better of it and got a cat instead. So there is no dog.
Question: were you telling a lie when you asserted, on no evidence, that Harry’s dog was in good health? Logically speaking, you weren’t. Your assertion wasn’t true, but neither was it false: “Harry’s dog” doesn’t refer to anything in the world, so statements about it can’t be either true or false (since they can never be either proved true or falsified). (Compare “Noah’s Ark was painted in bright colours”.) “Harry’s dog is fine” is neither true nor false. But what if you’d thought Jo looked suspicious and added “I’m telling you the truth, Harry’s dog is fine”? That statement (or meta-statement) would have been false, because the original statement isn’t true (neither is it false). On the third hand, if instead of asserting truth you’d denied falsehood – “I’m not lying, Harry’s dog is fine” – that statement would have been true, for much the same reason.
We seem to have a paradox: we started from the position that (1) “Harry’s dog is fine”, (2) “It’s true that Harry’s dog is fine” and (3) “It’s not false that Harry’s dog is fine” were logically identical, but we’ve identified conditions in which (3) is true and (2) false while – or because – (1) is neither true nor false.
One way to resolve it would be to look a bit more deeply into our ordinary-language understanding of the meanings involved. Why, after all, would anyone actually say “I’m telling you the truth, Harry’s dog is fine”? Perhaps, rather than being a meta-statement referring to the statement following it, the first clause is doing a separate job, asserting the trustworthiness of the speaker and the speech-act rather than the truthfulness of the statement: perhaps what this speaker is actually saying is “you can trust me to be telling the truth when I make the following statement”. In this case the paradox dissolves: under conditions where (1) is neither true nor false, the distinct statement (2) is false (because it’s asserting that the speaker is stating the truth when asserting (1)), while (3) is, rather sneakily and pedantically, true (because it’s asserting that the speaker isn’t stating a falsehood when asserting (1) – as indeed (s)he isn’t & can’t be, given that Harry’s dog doesn’t exist).
What’s all this got to do with Corbyn, Jukes, Gardner and Iraq? Carl’s post is a good starting-point. On the main point at issue – the legality of the invasion – he made four key assertions: that
- whether or not the invasion was legal depends on the text of two UN resolutions, the relationship between them and how these things are interpreted;
- there is room for different and conflicting interpretations;
- he personally endorsed an interpretation which concluded that the invasion was legal (“I agree with what Lord Goldsmith said was the legal justification for war”)
- “The invasion of Iraq was lawful”
To put it more schematically:
- There is an agreed set of facts on the basis of which statements can be made
- Both statement S and its negation not-S can be argued on the basis of those facts
- On the basis of those facts, I believe that S is preferable to not-S
I’m not criticising 2010-Carl for making the leap from the meta-statement at 3 to the statement at 4 – quite the reverse: I think this is an exemplary piece of unpacking. It’s reminiscent of what we do when we read a Supreme Court judgment: we see an uncontentious stock of facts and precedents construed in two or three different ways and an authoritative reading established partly by consensus and partly by majority vote. Once the decision is made, after multiple more or less plausible readings have been set out, the state of the law is what the SC majority concluded it to be: we proceed from “S and not-S are both arguable” to “S is preferred” and thence directly to S. And similarly with Carl’s assessment of the rival arguments about Iraq, his statement of his preferred alternative and his factual assertion that the invasion was lawful.
The question then is whether this is a game that only lawyers can play – or whether everyone, having made a factual assertion, is capable of clambering back down the ladder from 4 to 3 and back to 2. I think there’s a danger of a lack of charity in the assumption that we hold our beliefs lightly and on the basis of a preferred interpretation of agreed facts, whereas our opponents have positions that they maintain to the exclusion of all others. There’s also, perhaps, a danger of vanity in the assumption that we hold all our beliefs lightly. Related to this last point, I wonder if ‘unpacking’ is the right metaphor. If “S is true” is a different statement from S, presumably the same can be said of “I believe that S is true on grounds which I am prepared to justify logically”. However we arrive at our beliefs, “belief that S” once established is a distinct mental attitude – not an epiphenomenal aspect of a more fundamental “preference for the justificatory grounds for a belief that S“.
So I can’t agree with Carl: to say that Blair is a war criminal is not, in and of itself, to say that no other readings of the facts are possible or to deny that one has reached that opinion by selecting a preferred interpretation of the facts. A fortiori, Peter Jukes’s indignation at Corbyn’s mere failure to rebut the suggestion that Blair might be considered a war criminal is misplaced. (For what it’s worth, I think Corbyn handled the questioning rather well. If the Rome Charter is revised, Blair could be prosecuted by the ICC for waging aggressive war. I doubt we’ll ever see it, and if we do I would expect him to be found not guilty. But ‘possibly’ is about right.)
I think all this relates to a broader point about the Corbyn campaign. Let’s say that the spectrum of acceptable debate runs from position -3 (left of centre) to +3 (right of centre); if I assert position -5, those who hold +1 or +2 (or even -1 or -2) are less likely to argue with me than they are to dismiss my position and demand that I dismiss it too. And if, meanwhile, the centre has been shifting – so that today’s -5s are the -1s or +1s of twenty or thirty years ago – a calm and reasoned statement of -5 is liable to evoke a lot of suppressed demand in some quarters and rattle a lot of cages elsewhere. I think it’s largely because Corbyn’s campaign puts back into circulation positions that have simply been excluded – rather than being controverted or even challenged – that it’s causing such consternation on the Right and showing such power to mobilise on the Left.
3 August 2015 – 13:42
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.
31 July 2015 – 14:55
Before I get on to Scotland, here’s another way of looking at the figures in the last post.
Leader 1: +1,300,000, +670,000, -640,000
Leader 2: -1,090,000
Leader 3: -10,000 (W), +890,000 (W), -890,000, -560,000 (W), -190,000 (W)
Leader 4: +70,000
Leader 5: -3,070,000
Leader 6: +1,570,000, +1,530,000
Leader 7: n/a
Leader 8: +1,960,000 (W), -2,800,000 (W), -1,170,000 (W)
Leader 9: -940,000
Leader 10: +740,000
Or to look at it another way:
Leader 6: +3,100,000
Leader 10: +740,000
Leader 4: +70,000
Leader 1: -10,000
Leader 3: -760,000, 4 election wins
Leader 9: -940,000
Leader 2: -1,090,000
Leader 8: -2,010,000, 3 election wins
Leader 5: -3,070,000
Judged over their whole careers as leader, Labour’s three biggest vote-winners – in fact, their only vote-winners – are Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband and James Callaghan, in descending order; the three biggest vote-losers are Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Blair and Michael Foot, whose stewardship of the party saw it lose one, two and three million votes respectively. (Honourable mention to Gordon Brown, in a close fourth place with a net loss of over 900,000 votes.) Tony Blair, like Harold Wilson before him, drove the party’s vote up and then drove it right down again. Wilson became leader after a 12.2 million-vote defeat and resigned after winning an election with 11.5 million votes (a post-war low), paving the way for the defeat of 1979; Blair took over after an 11.6 million-vote defeat and resigned after winning an election with 9.6 million votes (from a substantially larger electorate), making the defeat of 2010 all but inevitable. A lot of recent commentary has bracketed Ed Miliband with Michael Foot, as left-wing leaders who presided over humiliating defeats (never mind the fact that Foot’s defeat was brought about by leading members of his own party). But the answer to the quiz question “which Labour leader had the second largest loss of votes?” isn’t Ed Miliband.
You could say that this is beside the point; what matters is to win elections, and on that metric Harold Wilson (say) beats Ed Miliband 4-0, despite having lost Labour more votes than Miliband gained. In other words, we should praise Wilson – and praise Blair – for finding tactics that won the party elections, even if they also drove supporters away. The problem with this argument is threefold. Firstly and most obviously, it lets New Labour (and any remaining Wilson apologists) have their cake and eat it: attracting 1.9 million new votes in 1997 shows how popular Blairism was, but driving them all away (and then some) four years later doesn’t matter, since after all the election was won anyway. We can’t really have it both ways: if New Labour was popular, the figures say that its popularity very rapidly ebbed away. Secondly, however effective New Labour’s laser-like targeting of swing voters may have been, any strategy that alienates that many of the party’s own voters is by definition of very limited use. If the election in which Ed Miliband’s leadership gained Labour 700,000 votes did more damage to the party’s standing than Blair’s massive losses in 2001 and 2005, it’s because Blair had the luxury of being able to lose all those votes. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, “do what wins elections (even if it loses votes)” isn’t a strategy that a party can actually use. As we saw in the last post, apart from increased votes, “what wins elections” is mostly outside the winning party’s control: Labour’s election victories were created, to a large extent, by the parties led by Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe and John Major. Of course, there are questions about making gains in the right places – better a narrow win over a Tory than a thumping majority in a safe seat. But, if we discount a pure swing-voter focus-group strategy – with its proven risk of alienating existing voters – what’s left is mostly technical questions of party organisation: any party, Left or Right, needs to target resources on winnable and vulnerable seats. (Of course, calling this a technical question isn’t to say that it’s insignificant. According to election post mortems several of the English seats Labour lost in 2015 could have been held with better organisation; if all seven had been held the Tories would have been three seats short of a majority. What might have been…)
Winning elections by hook or by crook is handy, but it makes more sense to judge success for a party – or party leader – in terms of numbers of votes; there are fewer factors involved, and a lot fewer factors outside the party’s control. And on that metric Ed Miliband really doesn’t look that bad – particularly if you bring Scotland in. Let’s suppose – as a lot of commentary does – that the SNP landslide was, in effect, just that: an unstoppable natural phenomenon, which couldn’t be predicted precisely but was bound to happen sooner or later. (I don’t think this is correct, but we’ll stick with it for the sake of argument.) Overall, the difference between Labour’s 2010 and 2015 performances (discounting by-elections) was a gain of 740,000 votes and a loss of 26 seats, but if we separate out the constituent nations of Great Britain the figures look a bit different.
Wales: +20,000 votes, 1 gain, 1 loss
Scotland: -330,000 votes, 40 losses
England: +1,050,000 votes, 21 gains, 7 losses
Labour put on over a million votes in England – in an election where the Green vote also increased by a million. (Some of the latter will have been former Lib Dems, but not all of them.) As you can see from the list above, this is a kind of increase in votes which Labour has only managed a handful of times since 1945 – once under Blair, once under Attlee and twice under Kinnock. Another interesting perspective shift is imagining what would have happened if somebody had kicked the crucial pebble ten years earlier, so that the landslide election was the one in 2005, not 2015. Take another 330,000 votes and 40 seats from Labour; suddenly Labour are nine seats short, and questions are being asked about Tony Blair’s ability to lose the party 1,500,000 votes, 87 seats and its majority.
That last part is a counter-factual – and, as it goes, I don’t think the SNP landslide was either inevitable or unpredictable, let alone that it could have happened as early as 2005. But the 2015 gain of a million votes in England is real. Doubtless much of this was a one-off gain from a minor-party squeeze – just as much of the vote loss in 1983 derived from a one-off minor-party surge – but the numbers do suggest that Ed Miliband’s leadership was doing something right, at least in England: something which should be built on rather than being repudiated. And there’s certainly nothing here to suggest that Blairism is a proven vote-winning strategy. If anything it’s a proven vote-losing strategy, which also wins elections – but only if the party’s support is already strong enough to absorb the loss of votes.
Next: the Scottish play (and surprise everyone).
29 July 2015 – 16:58
This is the first in a series of posts on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and the issues it raises.
The charge most commonly thrown at Corbyn from the Right is that Labour couldn’t possibly win in 2020 under his leadership. So I’m going to start by looking at how Labour’s won before, and at trends in voting at General Elections more generally. I’m going to argue that vote shifts in General Elections since 1945 can be modelled using a reasonably small set of effects:
1. Straight Vote Switch
2. Mobilisation Effects
2.1. Selective Mobilisation (Benefiting Incumbent)
2.2. Selective Mobilisation (Benefiting Opposition)
2.3. Selective Demobilisation (Benefiting Incumbent)
2.4. Selective Demobilisation (Benefiting Opposition)
2.5. General Demobilisation
(I haven’t got any examples of general mobilisation.)
3. Minor-Party Effects
3.1. Minor Party Surge (Benefiting Incumbent)
3.2. Minor Party Surge (Benefiting Opposition)
3.3. Minor Party Squeeze (Benefiting Incumbent)
3.4. Minor Party Squeeze (Benefiting Opposition)
4. Incumbency Effects
4.1. Consolidation In Office
4.2. Fightback In Opposition
Disclaimers: I’m not a political scientist or a historian of the period (although I have lived through most of it); for the most part I’m going to be ignoring day-to-day or even month-to-month politics and discounting the two- or three-way shifts in loyalty which take place in reality. It’s a simplistic model, but I think we can make it talk.
Labour won the 1945 election with a majority of 146, gained from 12 million votes – just under 48% of the total votes cast, and more than the votes gained by the Tories and Liberals combined. (The thin green line you can just make out in the left-most column, incidentally, represents 300,000 votes cast for the Communist Party and the left-wing Common Wealth party – votes which elected two MPs and one, respectively.) The figure to focus on here is the 8.9 million non-voters (turnout was 72.8%). In 1950 the voting public made up a significantly larger proportion (83.9%) of a larger electorate. Labour picked up some of the increase, but the Tories picked up more; Labour won with an overall majority of five. This is the first pattern I want to highlight: (2.2) Selective Mobilisation. Mobilisation in this sense isn’t a matter of winning voters from one party to another, or even ‘getting the vote out’ in the door-knocking and lift-to-the-polls sense, but of motivating potential voters: making the political weather to the point where voting for a particular party seems sensible. The point is simply to persuade supporters to vote rather than not bothering; getting them to feel that turning out to vote is a good idea, even if it hadn’t seemed to be before. Given the increased size of the electorate it’s hard to be certain where the votes for any party came from, but the fact that abstentions fell by 3.4 million and the Tory vote rose by 2.5 million looks decidedly suggestive.
The second pattern I want to draw attention to makes its appearance in 1951, when the Attlee government ill-advisedly called an election in the hope of increasing its majority. Labour certainly increased its vote, winning the most votes the party had (and has) ever won, but the Tories increased theirs more and did so more effectively. The key mechanism here was the (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze. The 1.8 million votes shown here for Liberals includes 1.1 million votes for the ‘National Liberals’, a Tory-allied splinter dating back to Ramsay MacDonald’s coalition government. The National Liberal vote went up slightly between 1950 and 1951, but the true Liberal vote plummeted from 2.6 million to 700,000. A third-party squeeze allowed the second party to achieve a gain of 22 seats – and a change of government – even while the Labour vote increased; Labour vote share in 1951 was 48.8%, even higher than it had been in 1945.
If we look at the next two elections – 1955 and 1959 – two patterns are discernible. One is (4.1) Consolidation In Office: over three successive elections the Tory vote grows, little by little, and the Labour vote declines. The other, particularly apparent in 1955, is (2.3) Selective Demobilisation, benefiting the party in office. The reverse of mobilisation, this – again – isn’t a matter of persuading opposition voters to switch parties, but simply demoralising them to the point where they stay at home. (I’m not saying that this was Tory party strategy – or even that anyone set out to achieve it; the main agents of Labour voter demoralisation may well have been the Labour Party. I’m just saying that the figures seem to suggest that it happened: electorate up by half a million or less, non-voters up by 2.1 million, Labour vote down by 1.5 million.) Patterns 3 and 4 are both essentially Labour/Tory phenomena in these years; the Liberal vote is unaffected, holding up between 1951 and 1955, then growing markedly in 1959 under the incoming leadership of Jo Grimond. (What looks like a collapse in 1955 is down to the almost total dissolution of the National Liberals into the Tory Party.)
The Tories’ reign came to an end in 1964, when the Labour vote leapt from 12.2 million to, er, 12.2 million; the national vote was actually 10,000 lower in 1964 than 1959. What had changed, however, was the Tory/Liberal share of the vote – or, to be more precise, the Tory/Liberal/non-voter share of voters. Here we see another pattern: the (3.2) Minor Party Surge, cracking the political pack-ice to the benefit of the main opposition party (in this case, Labour). Which in turn called an early election in 1966, pulling off a classic example of (4.1) Consolidation In Office by taking votes both from the Liberals and directly from the Tories.
What happened next?
The size of the electorate jumped between 1966 and 1970, due to Wilson’s government giving 18-year-olds the vote. As you can see, Labour didn’t gain from this. In fact none of the patterns identified up to now really fits the way that Edward Heath’s Tory government came to power. Let’s just call it a (1) Straight Vote Switch – the simplest and (one might assume) most common way for an election to change things in a two-party system, appearing now for the first time in seven elections.
After the February 1974 election, Harold Wilson formed a minority government reliant on, among others, the Ulster Unionists, who had just broken with the Tories. What made it possible was, once again, a (3.2) Minor Party Surge to the benefit of the opposition. (Thanks again, Liberals!) The October 1974 election was called in an attempt at (4.1) Consolidation In Office; unfortunately the Labour vote actually dropped. However, the Tory vote dropped by a lot more; Labour achieved the desired result – a parliamentary majority – through (2.3) Selective Demobilisation. (Labour’s majority was 3 – smaller than the majority which had prompted Attlee to call the 1951 election.) This was also the period of the SNP’s first surge, from 100,000 votes in 1966 to 300,000 in 1970, 600,000 in February 1974 and now 800,000. The devolution referendum in 1979, closely followed by Margaret Thatcher’s election, would put this into reverse.
As for Thatcher, what these figures suggest very strongly is that her victory in 1979 was almost entirely a question of (2.2) Selective Mobilisation, with a bit of (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze on the side. The Tories may have taken votes from the Liberals and the SNP, but there is no sign that they took any directly from Labour; the Labour vote actually went up compared to October 1974. (An alternative reading is that a Labour->Tory outflow was balanced by SNP->Labour and Liberal->Labour inflows. Either way, Labour didn’t get any less popular.) The main contributor to the massive increase in the Tory vote – from 10.5 million to 13.7 million – seems to have been a drop of nearly 2 million in the number of non-voters. The thin dark blue line you can make out near the top of the column, incidentally, is Britain’s first substantial far-Right vote: 200,000 votes for the National Front.
Bring on phase three:
Research published recently has argued that the ‘Falklands Factor’ had very little effect on the Tories’ poll ratings, and had dissipated by the time of the election the following year. If anything accounted for Thatcher’s second victory, the paper argued, it was our old friend the economy, and people’s subjective perceptions that their prospects were improving. I’m happy to bid the Falklands farewell, but I’m not sure that the voting figures support the second argument. What leaps out is the huge success of the SDP/Liberal Alliance, who put on 3.5 million votes relative to the Liberals’ vote in 1979; Labour’s vote, meanwhile, fell by 3 million compared to four years earlier. The Tories’ vote actually fell, as did overall turnout (from 76% back down to the 73% of October 1974). In short, what we’re looking at here is a rare example of (3.1) Minor Party Surge to the benefit of the incumbent.
The next couple of elections are interesting (to look back on; they were heartbreaking to live through). There’s (4.1) Consolidation In Office, with the Tory vote increasing at both elections; John Major’s 14.1 million is the highest vote ever obtained by any UK political party. But there’s also (4.2) Fightback In Opposition, with the Labour vote also increasing both times – and by substantially more. (The Tories’ share of the vote drops slightly over the period, from 42.4% to 41.9%. Labour’s share increases from 27.6% to 34.4%.) These increases are paid for by a combination of (2.1/2) Selective Mobilisation (benefiting both the leading parties – although Labour more than the Tories) and (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze (in Labour’s favour). Politics over the period was getting steadily more interesting – only 9.5 million non-voters in 1992, the lowest figure since February 1974 – and more polarised between the two main parties; and the balance between the two was steadily shifting towards Labour.
Then came 1997, which seemed to represent a triumphal culmination to the growth of Labour in opposition. Actually, as we can see, it reversed most of the trends which had been operating. The (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze continued to work for Labour, but it was accompanied by something that hadn’t been seen since 1970 – a large-scale (1) Straight Vote Switch – and another shift which hadn’t been seen at all since the War: (2.4) Selective Demobilisation of the incumbent party’s support. The increase in Labour’s vote (1.9 million) was huge; the drop in Tory support was more than twice as big. For those of us who remember this period, this both is and isn’t surprising. We can certainly remember the wheels coming off the Tory Party: John Major’s genius move, putting Thatcher’s transformation of the political landscape in the bank and fronting it with the appearance of reasoned moderation, stopped working more or less as soon as he had to start coming up with policies of his own. The sense that absolutely tons of people were voting Labour nowadays – and that hardly anyone was voting Tory any more – was certainly in the air that May. But look at that huge increase in non-voters – and look at the size of that dark blue stripe (100,000 UKIP votes and 800,000 for Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party). The idea that Tony Blair’s success, right from the outset, might have depended in part on encouraging a lot of Labour’s opponents not to bother voting – and, perhaps, encouraging another slice of people to go right to the extreme and cast a harmless ‘expressive’ vote – is unpleasantly thought-provoking. All the more so in the light of what happened in phase four:
Just look at 2001. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, for the first time in a British post-war General Election, (2.5) General Demobilisation. The Greens’ vote had more than doubled and UKIP’s nearly quadrupled – although this didn’t make up for the loss of the Referendum Party – but all the major parties showed big declines in their vote as compared to 1997: the Lib Dems were down 10%, the Tories 12% and Labour 20%. Not only was Labour’s vote was below the level at which Kinnock had lost in 1992; it was below the number of votes gained by Callaghan’s Labour Party in 1979, despite the electorate having grown by nearly 10% over those 22 years. The number of non-voters was unprecedentedly high – for the first time ever, non-voters outnumbered voters for the winning party. Helped, perhaps, by the former more than the latter, Labour secured a second three-figure majority.
At the 2005 election things got still worse for Labour: general demobilisation was replaced by (2.2) Selective Mobilisation of both the other two parties, together with a (1) Straight Vote Switch away from Labour, for reasons that don’t need repeating here. The Lib Dems, who opposed the Iraq war, were the main beneficiary; they gained 1.2 million votes where Labour lost 1.1 million. (The number of non-voters also fell by a million in this period, however; it’s impossible to identify flows with any certainty from data at this level of generality.) There were also the early signs of an impending (3.2) Minor Party Surge from the Kippers. In 2010, epoch-making election though it was, nothing much actually changed. That is, exactly the same things happened as had happened in 2005: the number of non-voters fell; the Tory, Lib Dem and UKIP votes rose; and the Labour vote (already in 2005 the second lowest since the War) fell again. The only significant change was that, in this period, the Tories were more effective than the Lib Dems in re-mobilising their dormant vote (and, perhaps, attracting Labour voters); the two parties’ votes grew by 20% and 13% respectively between 2005 and 2010, as opposed to 5% and 25% between 2001 and 2005. Labour’s vote fell by 10% in both periods. If 2010 was the end of New Labour, then – judging purely in terms of electoral success – New Labour left the party in an appallingly bad state.
The 2015 election was the first since 1997 when the Labour Party’s vote actually increased relative to the previous General Election. So that’s a (4.2) Fightback In Opposition. Unfortunately for Labour it was accompanied by (4.1) Consolidation In Office, along with the bizarre and unprecedented combination of a (3.3) Minor Party Squeeze (Benefiting Incumbent) with a (3.1) Minor Party Surge (Benefiting Incumbent). To be precise, there were three separate minor party surges; while UKIP will certainly have cost the Tories votes, the other two hurt Labour far more. The non-Labour centre-Left wind is blowing far harder against Labour now than it ever did against New Labour (for reasons that may not be mysterious); if we assume that half of the increase in Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru votes in 2015 came from erstwhile Labour voters (a fairly conservative estimate), then Labour effectively needed to gain a million votes just to stand still. Labour actually put on 700,000 votes. For comparison, in 1997 – the only New Labour election which is comparable, as Labour lost votes in all the others – Labour’s vote was up by 1.9 million on the previous election; the Greens and the two nationalist parties between them were down by 100,000 votes. The dog that didn’t bark this year, at least as far as the overall figures can tell us, was mobilisation; a lot of people have got out of the habit of voting since 1997, and the 2015 vote wasn’t enough to get them back into it. Here again there may be a more complex picture if we drill down – mobilisation in Scotland, demobilisation in Lib Dem country? – but the overall picture is static.
So, what have we learnt?
Why Do Governments Fall?
That’s a very interesting question, which I’ll answer if I may by pointing out that nobody has any idea. But my simplistic model does suggest that, on the seven occasions when the government has changed hands since 1945, the following factors have been at work in vote changes:
1. Straight Vote Switch (1970, 1997 and 2010): voters for one party switch to another
2.2. Selective Mobilisation (1979 and 2010): ‘dormant’ voters for the main opposition party become more likely to vote
2.4. Selective Demobilisation (1997): voters for the incumbent become less likely to vote
3.2. Minor Party Surge (1964, 1974, 2010): a rise in support for a minor party cuts away the incumbent’s base
3.4. Minor Party Squeeze (1951, 1979, 1997): the main opposition party poaches support from a minor party
However, most of these have also been a factor on one on the ten occasions when government hasn’t changed hands. The only ones which haven’t are
2.4. Selective Demobilisation
3.2. Minor Party Surge
Which seems to suggest that the best way to win an election is to join a different party. Politics is hard.
We can draw a few conclusions, though. Here are four.
1. Vote Switches Are Rare
In 17 elections (from 1950 to 2015), large-scale vote switching from party A to party B is only identifiable on four occasions – 1970, 1997, 2005 and 2010. One of those didn’t lead to a change of government; out of the other three, 1970 is the only case where large-scale vote-switching is the only identifiable factor.
2. Minor Parties Are Crucial
A minor party squeeze is identifiable in six of these elections – 1951, 1979, 1987, 1992, 1997 and 2015; a minor party surge in five (1964, 1974, 1983, 2010 and 2015 again). Six of these ten elections led to a change of government.
3. Mobilisation Is Important
Selective mobilisation – which rests, not on getting the vote out, but on ‘making the weather’ in your party’s favour; doing the Gramscian thing and getting your ideas into the common sense of the age – seems to have been a factor in 1950, 1979, 1987, 1992, 2005 and 2010. Admittedly only two of those elections led to a change of government, but all the other four either laid the groundwork for a change of government or seemed to at the time (1997, as I’ve argued above, was as much a break with the earlier trend as a continuation). The story of demobilisation is more interesting. It’s at work in 1955, 1959 and October 1974, in each case helping consolidate a previous election victory. It’s turned against the incumbent in 1997, and effectively goes viral in 2001; the total number of non-voters never reached 12 million before 1997, and has never fallen below 15 million since 2001.
4. New Labour Was Weird
For Labour to win a landslide victory, on a wave of public euphoria, with promises to transform the entire political landscape, on the back of a substantial fall in turnout (from 77.7% to 71.6%) was, in retrospect, odd. Following this with a second landslide victory on the back of an even bigger decline in turnout was very odd indeed, particularly when Labour’s vote fell considerably more than any of the other parties’. And gaining a third victory – not a landslide this time, admittedly, but a very substantial majority – on an even smaller number of votes, when both overall turnout and the other major parties’ votes were starting to pick up; that was downright flukey. Neither Blair nor anyone else was going to ride that kind of luck to a fourth election victory. Perhaps 2010 was New Labour’s Best Before date.
Still, New Labour did make some enduring changes to British politics, and I fear that lower turnout may turn out to be one of them. In an odd way there may be some truth in the absurd story put about by some Labour people after the 1983 election – that people hadn’t bothered to vote because they were so happy with how things were going. Part of the positive message of New Labour was that there was a whole new approach to doing politics – an approach which didn’t have anything to do with class conflict (or any other kind of conflict), which promoted a combination of practitioner expertise and scientific management techniques, and which generally looked a lot like managerialism. It would be easy to take from that the message that politics wasn’t something ordinary people needed to worry about – the machine would go on working, in much the same way, whether we tried to get involved or not. The negative message of New Labour, on the other hand, was that this new way of doing politics was going to be the only game in town whether you liked it or not; if you weren’t going to be part of the solution, well, sod you. I think a lot of people – mostly but by no means exclusively on the Right – picked up on this and thought well, sod you then. And gave up on voting – either for good, or just until a “sod the lot of ’em” candidate came along.
Maybe managerialism on one side and disengagement on the other is the modern (post-modern?) condition; maybe weird is the new normal. Or maybe New Labour is over; maybe the belief that, underneath it all, the elitist managerial approach to politics was about something has gone for good. Maybe the only way to win elections on that basis is to be cynical, divisive, dishonest and lucky. In which case Labour is definitely going to need some new tricks for 2020.
Why The Post-War History Of Britain Shows That We Must Support My Politics
Can Labour win again? It’s going to be hard to win any kind of majority on the basis of simple vote-switching; the Labour vote is just too low – and the Tory vote is still well below its Thatcher-era highs, suggesting that 2015 Tory voters are likely to be relatively hard to detach. If we imagine the Labour vote going up by two million, entirely at the expense of the Tories – which is more than Labour achieved in 1997 – the resultant vote would put Labour on the level of 1992, a whisker ahead of 1979.
Labour needs to think much more strategically. Tory-to-Labour switches are nice to have, but what the party really needs is the reversal of the other main trends at work in 2010 and 2015. In other words, what’s needed is a (3.4) Minor Party Squeeze, a (3.2) Minor Party Surge and (2.4) Selective Demobilisation. Firstly, Labour needs to win (back) votes from the SNP and (to a lesser extent) the Greens; if we can win votes back from UKIP as well, so much the better. Secondly, we need a strong Liberal Democrat Party – but one that’s strong against the Tories, as it was from 1997 to 2010. Thirdly, while I’m loath to discourage anyone from voting, it would help Labour a lot if people leaning towards the Tories were that much less likely to vote; if, when you said ‘Vote’, people tended to complete the sentence with ‘Labour’. At the last election the precise opposite seems to have been the case, with the effects that we know (on the polls as well as the result).
The question then is, what kind of party is going to be able to do those things and/or foster the conditions in which those things happen? Whose approach will be better at winning voters back from the Greens and the SNP – a Labourite hack who sees one lot as tree-huggers and the other as tartan Tories, or a principled socialist who sees them both as friendly rivals? Which approach will do less damage to Tim Farron’s crusade to retake the West Country – scrapping over the middle ground and denouncing the Lib Dems as soft on drugs and civil liberties, or seeing them as nice well-meaning halfway-house merchants and leaving them to it? What’s the best way to make voting Labour seem a sensible, normal part of everyday life – tell the workers you understand their resentments and hatreds, or talk to them about their working conditions?
I believe Labour’s going to have to move to the Left; anything else really is throwing the next election, if not the one after. (The fact that I have always believed that Labour should move to the Left is merely a happy coincidence.)
Next: we need to talk about Scotland.
1 July 2015 – 00:38
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 →
1 July 2015 – 00:38
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
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.
29 June 2015 – 22:03
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.)
25 June 2015 – 16:01
In my post on the Moohan ruling last year, I criticised the Supreme Court’s application (or rather refusal to apply) a putative common law principle of universal suffrage. My comment was critical of three opinions which dismissed the possibility of applying any such principle, pointing out that they did so for different and unsatisfactory reasons.
The roadblock in the way of asserting common law rights is not political but statutory, even constitutional: the idea of statute law as bedrock runs through all three comments, and its effects are, if possible, even more conservative than outright deference to the executive would have been. The trouble is, common law rights would mean nothing unless they could be asserted against statute. Lord Hodge, to his credit, recognises that there may be situations in which common law rights must be asserted against constitutionally legal decisions, but he defers any such activist role for common law lawyers to a distant and catastrophic future – just as Lady Hale relocates the common law to a distant and almost pre-legal past. From this decision there seems little hope of the common law playing any sort of safeguarding role in the present tense, as ECHR jurisprudence currently does.
As for Unison (no 2), this concerned the justifiability of the imposition of employment tribunal fees, on grounds other than cost saving (after all, if the government stops funding anything it will be able to show a cost saving, at least in the short term). (Strictly speaking, the issue was whether the benefits of the change could outweigh the potentially discriminatory effects of the imposition of fees, given that women are more likely than men to find the fees unaffordable. Half a cheer for sexism: a universal detriment wouldn’t be actionable in this way – or, perhaps, at all.)
The court accepted the Ministry of Justice’s argument that the new fees regime could be justified on the grounds of promoting appropriate behaviour change. I wasn’t convinced:
The argument is that the fees will change some groups of clients’ behaviour: those claimants with conciliable claims will be encouraged to have them conciliated, while those with unmeritorious claims will be deterred from proceeding and will sling their hook. … But the fee regime is, of its nature, imposed on claimants in general. … Perhaps we could justify treating all claimants as no-hope chancers, on the basis that the good claims would stay in the system; perhaps we could justify treating all claimants as mediation clients gone astray, on the grounds that unmediable claims would find their way back to court. We certainly can’t justify treating all claimants as both these things – and, even assuming that both these groups exist in significant numbers, it’s hard to imagine any possible package of incentives which would address these two groups and nobody else.
In fact these aren’t two distinct objectives but one objective with two benefits. Given the lack of any possible mechanism to single out weak or inappropriate claims, and the lack of any evidence as to the prevalence of such claims in the system before the introduction of fees, the Lord Chancellor’s aim must have been – at best – to reduce the number of weak and inappropriate claims by means of an overall reduction in claims. The objective, then, is to divert people out of the system; the benefits are that these two groups, to the extent that they exist, will be dealt with more appropriately.
By introducing a fee where none existed before, the government has restructured the terms on which people decide whether or not to go to a tribunal, with the express intention of discouraging them from doing so.
In other words, the court allowed itself to be distracted by incidental benefits of the change – and I don’t deny the possibility that it will discourage some unmeritorious claims and some claims which would fare better in mediation – from the overall reality of a straightforward, and fairly overt, attack on citizens’ access to justice.
Why were these decisions unfortunate? (And why do I say ‘unfortunate’ rather than ‘wrong’?) Essentially, I would argue that they both evince a cramped and timid conception of the relationship between the law, the courts and the government of the day. This timidity – in terms of both deference and lack of imagination – would be regrettable at any time. At a time when the government is openly attacking key elements of the rule of law, and doing so with both imagination and boldness, it is dangerous.
Has the election changed matters? Has the replacement of the appalling Grayling by the emollient Mr Gove improved matters? We shall see. But I don’t believe that Gove cares any more than Grayling for the kind of people whose rights tend to be vindicated by European Convention rulings, i.e. those who don’t have the power, wealth or connections to vindicate them any other way; and I certainly don’t believe that Gove is a secret enthusiast for higher public expenditure. The tone is different, but the battle is going to continue. Better – more assertive, more empowering – decisions than these are going to be needed if the rule of law is to retain any meaning at all.
NB According to Charon QC (no less) the Unison case has its second hearing this month (June 2015); I can’t find any more information about it online, so I assume it hasn’t happened yet. I shall hope for the best and fear the worst; at least that way I’ll be covered.
Play us out, Phil:
23 June 2015 – 19:55
Here are the abstracts of a couple of short papers I’ve presented recently, the first at the Understanding Conflict conference in Bath, the second at a workshop on critical terrorism studies at the British International Studies Association. I don’t think anyone was there for both – which is just as well, as there is a certain amount of overlap.
GOVERNING VIOLENCE: RULE OF LAW OR RULE BY EXCEPTION?
In a 2014 case, an English Defence League member found in possession of a home-made nail bomb was given a two-year sentence for possession of explosives. Terrorism charges were not brought, on the grounds that “it was never [his] intention to use the device for any terrorist or violent purpose”. The arbitrariness of this decision is as striking as its leniency towards an individual who does not fit the received profile of the violent (Islamic) extremist. This paper will argue that decisions such as this are not aberrations: counter-terrorist legislation since 2000 has been designed to be used on a discretionary basis, not as a set of standards to be applied uniformly but as a tool for the criminalisation of selected suspects. This discretionary mindset is related to the discourse of ’emergency’ surrounding the concept of terrorism. Terrorists – and, more recently, ‘extremists’ – are framed as inherently unacceptable to the democratic state: not potential entrants to the political sphere, but threats to democratic politics itself. Hence it is appropriate to respond to the urgent threat of ‘extremist’ disruption with emergency counter-measures which go beyond the law – or which stretch the law to the point where it will accommodate arbitrary official action. The danger posed by this approach is not merely the instrumental and discriminatory use of the law, with predictably divisive effects. The larger danger is that, in the zone of exception created by counter-terrorist legislation and policing, the rule of law – the law as a systematic, comprehensible and followable set of norms, applicable to everyone – will no longer apply. If the use of political violence and the expression of ‘extremist’ views are no longer governed under the law, what are the implications for the public space of politics?
TERRORISM: THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF COUNTER-LAW
The threat of terrorism – and, increasingly, the mere threat of ‘extremism’ – is typically framed as so urgent and so extreme that it is appropriate to respond with emergency counter-measures which go beyond the law – or which stretch the law to the point where it will accommodate arbitrary official action. On one hand, individuals suspected of extremism are subjected to coercive and unaccountable interventions, without any allegation of illegal activity and outside any lawful accountability. On the other, counter-terrorist legislation is increasingly characterised by preparatory and inchoate offences, to that point that an individual accused of terrorism need only be found guilty only of an ‘ouster’ offence, potentially provable against a wide range of people. This paper argues that the proliferation of anti-terrorist ‘counter-law’ – law-making and policing which undermines the principles of the rule of law – offers a new approach to the vexed question of defining terrorism: perhaps ‘terrorism’ is, first and foremost, that which justifies counter-law. This argument opens up the possibility that critiquing counter-terrorism from a ‘rule of law’ perspective may have surprisingly radical effects, undermining the claims to exceptional action and discretionary enforcement which are fundamental to today’s discourse of terrorism and extremism.
And here are the references (I’ve merged the two lists).
Blair, A. (2004), speech given in Sedgefield, 5 March
Brodeur, J.-P. (1983), “High policing and low policing”, Social Problems 30(5)
Carter, H. (2011), “Jihad recruiters jailed after anti-terror trial”, Guardian 9 September
Crown Prosecution Service (2012), The Counter-Terrorism Division of the CPS: Cases concluded in 2011
Dodd, V. (2014), “Soldier jailed for making nailbomb avoids terror charge”, Guardian 28 November
Ericson, R. (2007), Crime in an insecure world
Fuller, L. (1964), The morality of law
Home Office (2008), From the neighbourhood to the national: Policing our communities together
Neocleous, M. (2006), “The Problem with Normality: Taking Exception to ‘Permanent Emergency’”, Alternatives 31
Pantazis, C. and Pemberton, S. (2009), “From the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ suspect community”, British Journal of Criminology 49(4)
Schmitt, C. (2004 (1922)), Politische Theologie
Simmonds, N. (2007), Law as a moral idea
Thomas, P. (2015), “Prevent and Community Cohesion in Britain: the worst of all possible worlds?”, in Baker-Beall, Heath-Kelly and Jarvis (eds), Counter-Radicalisation: Critical perspectives
Waldron, J. (2008), “The concept and the rule of law”, Georgia Law Review 43(1)
A proper paper will follow – possibly two; I think there may be a paper just in a discussion of Ericson’s idea of counter-law – law deployed instrumentally with the specific purpose of undermining legal standards and protections. Ericson never developed it theoretically in any depth – he never had the chance, even if he might have wanted to – and, perhaps as a result, subsequent discussions of the concept have been fairly superficial and sometimes (I think) misleading. There’s definitely some inter-disciplinary bridge-building to be done between ‘counter-law’, on one hand, and ideas about the rule of law on the other. (Brodeur and Fuller, together at last!) On the other hand, I’m becoming less interested in the ‘state of exception’, and in Agamben and Schmitt generally; I think the critique of the over-use of the ‘exception’ advanced by Neocleous, Miéville and others is powerful, even though – as the references above will indicate – I don’t share their post-Critical Legal Studies assumptions, or their scepticism about the rule of law in particular.
18 May 2015 – 13:29
I did something a few weeks ago which I hadn’t done for 22 years. I threw away a copy of the London Review of Books; volume 37 number 1, more specifically.
One down, 531 to go. I stopped throwing the LRB away quite soon after I first subscribed. The first copy I’ve kept, the LRB for 25th June 1992 (volume 14 number 12), features reviews by Gabriele Annan, Frank Kermode, Richard Mayne and George Melly (who wrote about Magritte). Contributors who are still with us included John Sturrock, Blair Worden and Hilary Mantel (“Her new novel, A Place of Greater Safety, will be published by Viking in September.”)
But I’m not telling you anything obscure. The only piece of information in the previous paragraph which can’t be found on the LRB Website is Hilary Mantel’s contributor bio – its 1992 version, that is. The same goes for the text of the reviews themselves – Sturrock on Proust, Kermode on Ahdaf Soueif, Mantel on Charles Nicholl. Whether I hang on to the paper copy or not, all those reviews will remain available to me for as long as I remain a subscriber, the LRB remains solvent and the Internet remains.
Never mind the content, though – what of the document itself, its inscape, its irreducible papery thingness? As an object, volume 14 number 12 consisted of 28 large, deckle-edged, four-column pages (very large; the pre-1997 LRB always put me in mind of the Beezer). There was advertising, but not very much of it – only two internal full-page ads (for Index on Censorship and Granta), one column of classified ads on the last inside page. There were those author bios, tersely written but elegantly worded (“George Melly is a jazz singer and an art scener, and was a friend of Magritte.”). The cover for that issue was a striking – and huge – shot of David Sylvester (“art scener extraordinaire”, presumably according to the same unknown hand). And there were photographs. To a much greater extent than the present-day LRB, the 1992 version often ran pictures illustrating or accompanying a piece; in this issue we had a 1973 shot of Ian McEwan and a ‘thirties’ photographic portrait of Magritte. But the journalism itself is all on the Website – where it’s easier to find, much easier to search and not a great deal harder to read.
Now, twenty-two years is a long time – and twenty-two years as an LRB subscriber is a lot of LRBs. Having kept them stacked behind the sofa for quite some time, in the early 00s I succumbed to an advertisement for binders and rehomed my collection. The binders are big, solid things, which would grace any library reading-room; they hold the actual papers by means of 24 long cotton threads, running top to bottom, onto each of which you thread a single copy of the magazine, open at the centre pages. It’s easier to do than it is to describe, although not by much; it was a long evening when I stocked my first ten binders. I got up to fifteen before temporary poverty dissuaded me from getting one for the year just gone; after that the moment to order another binder or two never seemed to arrive. At the start of this year I had fourteen and a half years’ worth of the LRB in binders and another eight years (192 issues) in a pile in the corner of the room.
Which is where they remain, at least for now; I crossed a line the other week, but I’ve only committed myself to throwing away post-2014 issues. I’m not sure how long this position will hold, though. Returning to the 1992 volume or half-volume, what strikes me is… well, two things, one which I fully expected to find and one which took me by surprise. Firstly, it’s hard to find your way around. Flipping through the pages, there seems to be no particular likelihood of fetching up at a front cover, let alone a Contents page; the collection truly becomes a ‘volume’, one long, unordered series of reviews, pictures, Letters to the Editor. Secondly – and this probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did – it’s very easy to get lost in it, in a good way. Lighting by chance on a Contents page, I find that A Place of Greater Safety was reviewed (fairly favourably) by P.N. Furbank in the 20th August issue. The same issue featured pieces by E.S. Turner, Paul Foot, Mary Beard and Marina Warner, a Diary by Christopher Hitchens and letters from Michael Horovitz and Kurt Vonnegut; the cover was a very striking (and huge) shot of Carolyn Steedman, whose collection Past Tenses is reviewed by Patrick Parrinder. All that (and, of course, more) in one issue. It goes on: I turn a few pages and I’m reading – or at least having the option of reading – Perry Anderson on Thatcherism; Amartya Sen on Darwinism; Jenny Diski on Madonna; Adam Phillips on cross-dressing…
I once found a small stash of LRBs in a dentist’s waiting-room; the unexpected pleasure was blunted slightly by the realisation that they were all issues I’d read. But only slightly – you can’t remember everything you ever read, after all. I would be happy, more than happy, to sit down with that 1992 volume of the LRB – or any of the other fourteen – and work my way through, given a spare couple of days or weeks. But if I had any questions I wanted answered or memories I wanted to track down – even if I wanted to check something that had caught my eye in one of those issues I’d just leafed through – the Web site would win over the bound volume every time. (What was it that Craig Raine was saying about Kipling? Ah, here we are. Bookmark that.) And that goes double for the issues from between 2007 and 2014, standing forlorn in the corner of the room, unbound and unconsultable. I’m afraid their days are numbered.
But what to do with 528 LRBs, 336 of them in binders? How to dispose of them? Into the recycling, a year at a time? Surely not. Perhaps I’ll give it a bit longer, rather than rushing into anything. It’s been 22 years, after all.
Update I wrote this post with the LRB blog in mind; this was perhaps a bit quixotic, not to say cheeky, given that the LRB is still selling binders. I’ve kept to my resolution of throwing away new LRBs when I’ve finished with them, but it seems to have had the unintended consequence of making them harder to finish with: my backlog of part-read issues currently stands at four instead of the usual one or two, and I’ve only recently got it down from six. As for this blog post, the LRB turned it down – which is why you’re reading it here – but they did made me a present of some more binders. Which was nice.
4 May 2015 – 12:16
Since about 1974, the two-party system established after 1945 has been gradually unravelling. (This means, of course, that the period of unchallenged two-party stasis is actually shorter than the period since it ended. Not only does nothing last forever in the British House of Commons, nothing (since Victoria) has lasted longer than about 40 years: first Whigs and Tories, then Liberals and Conservatives, then National Governments for most of the period from 1918 to 1945, then the Labour/Conservative duopoly, and then the unravelling begins.) For much of the period between 1945 and 1974 third-party representation was minimal: in the 1964 House of Commons there were nine third-party MPs in total, meaning that Labour had an overall majority despite having only thirteen more seats than the Conservatives. That hasn’t been the case for a long time; throughout the Thatcher and Blair years, despite the unchallenged dominance of their respective parties, the number of seats not available to the two main parties has steadily increased.
There look like being around 90 third-, fourth- and nth-party MPs in the next Parliament, meaning that the gap between the two main parties needs to be that much bigger for either to gain an overall majority. The number of seats the winning party would needs is still the same – formally, half the seats in the Commons plus one, or 326; the difference is that, to achieve an overall majority, the first party now needs a much larger lead over the second party, which must win no more than 234 seats. Instead of the two parties splitting the lion’s share of the seats 52%/48% (as happened in 1951), the split thus needs to be at least 58%/42% in favour of the largest party: any less and, as in 2010 (54%/46%), there is no overall majority. Prior to 2010, of course, this was not an issue. Curiously, in the same period that the minor-party bloc was growing, its effects were masked by a series of huge parliamentary majorities: the governing party never accounted for as many as 60% of the first two parties’ MPs from 1950 to 1979, but majorities on this scale were achieved in five of the next six elections, two under Thatcher and three under Blair. The scale of the split between the first two parties in 2010 – 306 to 258 – was more typical of election results in the 1950s and 1960s; something similar will almost certainly be seen this year.
This raises the issue of coalitions and alliances, deals and understandings. There are, of course, many ways to form a coalition and just as many ways to justify choices of coalition partner. Nick Clegg has declared that the Lib Dems would only work with the party given the biggest ‘mandate’ in the election – and that a government formed on any other basis would lack legitimacy and be unable to function. (He has subsequently retreated from the assertion about legitimacy.) This echoes a line being run by the right-wing press, to the effect that the party with the most seats will be the rightful winner of the election, whether or not another party can put together a more durable parliamentary majority. However, there is no constitutional justification for this argument, or for Clegg’s slightly more nuanced position. At this stage it’s unhelpful at best; at worst it’s pure mischief-making, driven by a determination to maintain the coalition with the Tories and keep the Lib Dems in government on that basis. Ironically, it also gives the Tories a strong incentive to attack the Lib Dems: every seat the Tories can take from them makes it more likely that the Tories will be the largest single party.
As well as fetishising the largest single party (evidently on the assumption that the Tories will be that party), the right-wing press has denounced the possibility of a coalition between Labour and the SNP, arguing that this would be undesirable, illegitimate and inherently unstable – although, given the arithmetic, a Tory-led coalition is likely to be considerably more unstable. A simple and straightforward answer to both these charges would be to say that governments are formed on the basis of a majority in the House of Commons; that there is no clause barring members of the SNP, or any other elected party, from forming part of that majority; that the solidity of the SNP vote, and the congruence of Labour and SNP policies, make a Labour/SNP majority a virtual certainty; and that this is a good thing, guaranteeing that the new government would be both representative and stable. However, Labour politicians from Miliband on down have refused to say anything like this, insisting that the party is fighting for an overall majority – something which, on the basis of the current numbers, is implausible for the Tories and downright unbelievable for Labour.
It’s Labour I want to concentrate on in this post. When it comes to allying with the SNP, Labour are in a difficult position. Given the distortions of the ‘first past the post’ system, support for the SNP has risen to the point that it effectively wipes out the other parties’ chances of electing any but a very few MPs in Scotland. A recent poll gave the Lib Dems 4% of support in Scotland, the Tories 15%, Labour 26% and the SNP 49%; on that basis (according to the UK Polling Report swingometer) the SNP would win 54 of the 59 Scottish seats (+48), Labour 4 (-37), the Lib Dems one (-10) and the Tories none (-1). Given that there were 40 Labour MPs in the outgoing House of Commons, this is an extraordinary turnaround – and one with serious implications for Labour’s position overall. Projections showing Labour taking 295 seats – a net gain of 39 from the current 256 – are actually showing a net gain of 76 English seats. It also helps explain a certain deafness on Labour’s part to friendly overtures from the SNP. Even if the two parties’ policy commitments were identical, for Labour to accept the SNP as a member of an anti-Tory alliance would be to abandon 36 MPs (the 37th was Eric Joyce).
A revival of Labour in Scotland – assuming for the moment that this is a possibility – could also have game-changing effects for the House of Commons as a whole. If Labour were to wave a wand and take 10% of Scottish support from the SNP – taking the two parties’ support in Scotland to 36% and 39% respectively – this would only correspond to a 1% rise in UK-wide support, but its effects would be enormous: the largest party in Scotland would be Labour with 31 seats, followed by the SNP (24) and the Lib Dems and Tories, both on two seats. If this corresponded to a UK-wide increase in support from 35% to 36%, it would take Labour from 295 to 322 seats; an effective majority together with Plaid Cymru, never mind the SNP. There’s also the intriguing suggestion that the level of ‘undecideds’ is substantially higher in Scotland than in the UK overall, running at anything up to 28%. A Labour campaign which could engage with undecided Scottish voters to the extent of bringing Labour 15% out of that 28% and the SNP 10% – instead of 7% and 14%, reflecting the breakdown of the ‘decided’ vote – would take the vote split from 49%/26% to 45%/33%, giving Labour 17 seats.
So, the best way for Scottish Labour to encourage its supporters to vote – and its activists to get the vote out – is to stick to the message that Labour cares about every seat in Scotland; it’s also an easy message to stick to, as it’s the truth. A post-election alliance with the SNP is feasible for Labour in a way that it isn’t for the Tories, and in the abstract this is a plus point for Labour; however, for as long as (Scottish) Labour is also the enemy the SNP has to defeat, (GB) Labour can’t make anything of it. To put it another way, it’s not surprising that Labour might have some difficulty welcoming SNP MPs into a broad progressive alliance, when we consider that two-thirds of those MPs will have been elected for the first time on May 7th, after defeating a sitting Labour MP.
The implications of this position are greater than they seem, though. Labour could rule out a deal with the SNP then come to power as the head of a post-election anti-Tory alliance, formal or informal. If this looked like being a likely result – or the only likely alternative to a Tory victory – then the situation for Scottish voters would be exactly the same as if Labour were promising to ally with the SNP: there would be no reason to vote SNP rather than Labour, and all those Labour seats would be just as much at risk as they ever were. To make the party’s position credible, Labour has to make the further commitment not to ally with the SNP, even at the cost of losing power.
This could be seen as a case of “costly signalling”: making commitment to a position credible by associating it with personal costs. The costs in this case are not entirely personal, though – in fact, if you’ll forgive me a quick diversion into populism, the costs aren’t personal: even if we have another five years of Tory rule, Ed Miliband will still be drawing an MP’s salary at the end of it. Given the stakes involved, Labour’s position is reminiscent of the debased variant of signalling theory practised by Richard Nixon, which he called “madman theory”; this involved making threats with consequences so dire that no sane actor would choose to incur them, while creating uncertainty as to whether he would carry them out anyway. This was certainly the reaction of Nicola Sturgeon:
“I heard Ed Miliband and he sounded awfully like he was saying – and I hope I’m wrong about this because I think people across Scotland and the rest of the UK would be appalled if I’m right – he sounded as if he was saying that he would rather see David Cameron and the Conservatives back in government than actually work with the SNP.
“Now, if he means that, then I don’t think people in Scotland will ever forgive Labour for allowing the Conservatives back into office. But if he is a minority government, then he will not be able to get policies through without winning support from other parties.”
‘Other parties’ here meaning, primarily, the SNP. But – to follow that train of thought through – if Labour can’t get policies through without winning support from the SNP, and if the SNP has a lot of the same policies as Labour anyway, then there’s no reason on earth to vote Labour rather than SNP in a Labour/SNP marginal. What looks like wild irresponsibility may actually be the logical consequence of a commitment to fight for Labour votes in Labour seats.
Labour’s apparent acquiescence in the other line being put forward by the Tories and their media allies – the idea that the largest single party has a right to rule – baffled me for a long time. Jim Murphy, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has openly endorsed the ‘largest single party’ model, saying that a strong result for the SNP would directly benefit the Tories: “If this poll [giving the SNP all the seats in Scotland] is repeated on election day, David Cameron will be uncorking his champagne, because he might cling onto power; not because Scotland’s gone out and voted Tory, but because Scotland has voted against the Labour party and made sure David Cameron has the biggest party”. Perhaps the Scottish context is the key, and we’re still in the realm of costly signalling. If the next government could be formed by putting together an anti-Tory majority – as in fact it can, constitutionally speaking – then there would be no reason to try and save all those Labour seats, other than pure party loyalty. Therefore (for a politician in Murphy’s position) there must be some way in which losing Labour seats to the SNP would affect the outcome; the only significant difference the loss of those seats could make is that it might stop Labour being the largest single party; therefore, it must be the case that the largest single party wins. The cost is rather high – it involves not only lying about the British constitution but endorsing a lie put forward by David Cameron for his own ends – but the signal is sent loud and clear: vote Labour. Vote Labour or else. The problem is, of course, that the message sent to potential Labour voters in Scotland is entirely negative; it essentially says that the Scottish political battle (between two Left parties) has to be treated as if it were a battle between Left and Right, because the Labour leadership says so. We’re not in the world of “Tartan Tories” any more, but the effect is much the same.
Could it be different – could Labour fight for those Scottish seats (and those undecided Scottish votes) without threatening to bring the roof down on us all? Could the nationalist parties be treated as friendly rivals rather than mortal enemies – fight for every vote on May 7th, shake hands on May 8th? Can it still be like that? I wonder; I worry. At the moment – three days out – I think there are three main possibilities, which unfortunately get worse in ascending order of probability.
1. Perhaps we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop – just as Labour announced they were going to “control immigration” and then revealed that this actually meant enforcing the minimum wage so as to stop gangmasters illegally undercutting British workers. Very clever. (Perhaps a bit too clever, but that’s by the way.) Perhaps on Wednesday morning Miliband will say something like,
“I said ‘No deals,’ and I meant it. But that’s not to say I’ll refuse support if it’s offered. We’ve got a plan, and we intend to stick to it; if other parties want to support that, great. I say to them, we’re not going to change our plan to suit you – we’re genuinely not interested in deals. But if you want to support Labour’s plan for the country, please do.”
I think that would shoot several foxes & almost certainly make Miliband PM. Unfortunately I can’t see him doing it. I hope I’m wrong, though.
2. The Labour leadership may be thinking in terms of keeping their heads down until Thursday, fighting hard (and sending out costly signals), and then forming a minority government. In this case – as Sturgeon says – ruling out a deal may not make much practical difference. In a minority government the parliamentary arithmetic would be exactly the same as in a coalition – the government’s majority would just be re-assembled every time, generally from the same parties as the time before. This would have the additional advantage of disrupting the Tory/LD bloc by encouraging individual MPs – or entire parties – to support Labour legislation. This would be a hegemonic strategy, in other words, from a position of apparent weakness. I think this would appeal to Miliband on several levels.
3. Sadly, the explanation for Labour’s current tactical choices may be simpler than either of these: it may be that they’ve bought the Tory line, illegitimacy of SNP involvement in government, largest-party-goes-first and all. Or at least that they’ve taken the decision to act as if they’d bought it, as they did in 2010 (disastrously) with the “Labour overspending caused the crash” story. (Miliband is challenging that now, but it’s a bit late.) Debating with Nicola Sturgeon, Jim Murphy even said… well, this:
Murphy also indicated that Labour would resist pressure to vote down the Tories if David Cameron’s party became the largest in parliament. Murphy told Sturgeon the last time the losing party had formed a minority government was in 1924. “It was so long ago, there wasn’t a Queen’s speech. It was a king’s speech,” he said.
Sturgeon retorted that Gordon Brown had tried to broker a deal to continue as prime minister despite coming second behind the Tories in 2010 – disproving Murphy’s thesis. But the Scottish Labour leader implied that the former prime minister was wrong, saying there was “an unstoppable force” behind the Tories which made it clear they were correct to form the government.
Largest single party = “unstoppable force”? Labour would “resist pressure to vote down the Tories”? Either this is the madman theory in full effect, or Murphy actually believes it. I fear the latter possibility, and I fear that he’s not alone. I have a lot of trust in Ed Miliband’s judgment – he’s shown that he’s not someone to be underestimated – but we’re electing a party, not a president, and there are some Labour MPs I wouldn’t trust as far as I can throw them. I’m not giving names, both because it would be a distraction and, more importantly, because they don’t tend to use names – see for instance “some members of the shadow cabinet”, bravely disagreeing anonymously with their own party leader in the middle of an election campaign in today’s Murdoch Times (not that I’m cross about this or anything). If anyone in the Labour party is thinking along those lines – if anyone is thinking in terms of stepping graciously aside and giving the Tories another turn in government… well, there’s a quote for that.
Let’s not forget, the Tories only got into government in the first place by allying with a party which had previously opposed most of what they stood for – and whose support has dropped like a stone since they made that alliance. Essentially, the Tories are in power under false pretences; there’s an anti-Tory majority out there for the taking, a progressive, left-wing alliance there to be built. If Labour don’t take that chance, a lot of people will be asking what the party is good for. In the words of the song, I can’t understand why we’d let someone else rule our land…
29 April 2015 – 13:29
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?
27 April 2015 – 20:33
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.