Strategy and tactics in British politics

In any longer term competitive activity it is useful to distinguish between strategy and tactics. This as true of politics as it is of anything else. It is surprising how few British political activists grasp the difference.

The current usage of the two words derives from the development of military theory in the 19th Century. Strategy focuses on long-term aims and how to achieve them. Tactics focuses on the here and now. Strategy guides your choice of which battles to fight; tactics help you win those battles. In politics strategy is mainly about identifying the coalition of voters you need to win and retain power. You then develop tactics to secure that coalition.

In British politics it is the Conservatives that grasp the usefulness of the distinction best. After 2005, its leader put into action a new strategy, which was to woo liberal-minded middle class voters to join the party’s existing base of conservative suburban and rural middle classes. This allowed it to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, and then to win an outright majority by crushing that party in 2015, completely outmanoeuvring Labour. But to hold this shaky coalition together he had to promise a referendum on EU membership, which he lost, causing the collapse of his strategy. He sensibly bowed out. After Brexit the Conservatives, led by Theresa May, developed a new strategy. This was to bolster the rural and suburban core vote with Brexit-supporting lower middle-class and working class voters in the North, Midlands and Wales. The metropolitan middle classes would then be bullied into voting Tory by fear of Labour. This strategy seemed to be working in 2017, but Mrs May’s lousy tactical handling of the election in 2017 ended in failure. This election was a very good demonstration of the difference between strategy and tactics. Sound strategy was let down by bad tactics. When Boris Johnson took over from Mrs May last year, he retained her political strategy, but added much sharper tactical management to it. Aided by Labour’s strategic ineptitude, he was rewarded with a landslide last December.

Labour’s Tony Blair grasped the need for strategy very well. His strategy for Labour was to appeal to middle class voters while retaining its working class base. When he left the leadership in 2007, this strategy was getting stale, but his successor, Gordon Brown, had no clear alternative. Labour leaked metropolitan middle class votes both to the Tories and Lib Dems and lost. Since then Labour has shown little grasp of strategy and has preferred to focus on tactics instead. Ed Miliband’s strategy, inasmuch as there was one, seems to have been based on the idea of a “progressive majority”. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote, he reasoned, would be enough secure a winning coalition without the need to chase more conservative voters, as Mr Blair had. But the Lib Dem collapse favoured the Tories, not Labour, while in Scotland Labour was helpless facing the rise of the SNP. Under Jeremy Corbyn the party’s strategy was based more on hope than evidence; he assumed most voters were fed up with Tory austerity and angry about the way the rich seemed to be getting away with so much. There was also a hope that the party could bring in people who hadn’t voted before, especially younger voters. Alas for them they interpreted the relatively good result in 2017 as evidence of sound strategy. Labour instead strategised on what they would do if they won power – an area where Mr Blair was weak, as indeed have been most Conservative leaders. Political strategy and government strategy are different things.

Just how bad things are in Labour was illustrated by a remark of leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey. In her defence of Mr Corbyn’s record she said that the loss of the 2019 election was due to poor strategy. That’s a bit like saying that the result was down to weak leadership, and not the leader. Actually it is clear she actually meant “tactics” rather than “strategy”. Party activists, even senior officials, muddle the two up. It doesn’t help that most advisers on political tactics call themselves “strategists”.

The Lib Dems are no better than Labour on this. Nick Clegg, its leader in the 2010 election did seem to have some sort of strategy, which was to appeal to liberal-minded voters, and use coalition government to establish the party’s credentials as a serious political force, and so expand its voter base. This strategy collapsed on contact with reality after 2010, though poor tactical handling of the early coalition government didn’t help. By the 2015 election, the Lib Dems were reduced to fighting 30 seats as if they were by elections, so empty was their strategic appeal. Since then the party has remained consumed by tactical rather than strategic thinking, in particular with its focus on Brexit. But as the third party in a winner-takes-all electoral system, the party starts from a point of strategic weakness, so perhaps this is understandable.

A wider point needs to be made. The way I write about it suggests that political strategy is a matter of clever choices by senior party leaders, allowing them to lead a willing “army” to victory, rather as military strategy is a lot of the time. But political strategy involves compromises and pain. It is about identifying disparate coalitions of voters – but what you promise one part of the coalition will displease other parts. Mr Blair’s strategy so annoyed core metropolitan Labour support that he remains regarded as a traitor within the party. Mr Cameron’s coalition required the EU referendum to satisfy its core supporters, which came at a huge political cost. Tension within the new Tory coalition is obvious, especially over such matters as immigration policy.

The problem for Labour is that it has been, and probably still is, unable to face up to the compromises required to secure a winning coalition. Nothing very clear is coming from the leadership candidates. Lisa Nandy is best at articulating the problems, but is less clear on the painful choices Labour will need to make. Ms Long-Bailey still seems to hope that all Labour needs is sharper tactics. Kier Starmer says as little as he can about what he would actually do.

And the Lib Dems? What they do in large measure depends on the choices that the new Labour leadership does or does not make. Such is the lot of a third party.

The new economics: what does this mean for liberals?

My previous article on the changing world of political economy generated more interest than usual. It was, of course, a small dip into a large and complex topic. Given the interest shown, I feel the need to expand on it a bit.

The first thing to say is that what I am calling “the new economics” is based on standard economic principles, and the ideas aren’t new. The departure from political policy norms may be radical, but the departure from mainstream economic theory is not. This is partly how I have chosen to frame it. The heterodox idea of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), popular in some parts of the left in the US and UK, is in fact not at all far from my new economics. But MMT advocates have, generally, chosen to frame their arguments as a radical challenge to conventional economics, and have a tendency to be very rude about mainstream economists. They have in turn drawn lots of rude comments from mainstream economists. A lot of this dispute, from both sides, is manufactured and I think that is a pity. Clearly some facts are in dispute, but it would be better to narrow these down and focus on the evidence rather than indulge in slanging.

Instead I take inspiration from people who are clearly on the mainstream spectrum. The main one is Adair Turner (whom I found going through some of my old papers was a Cambridge contemporary of mine: we were both members of the Conservative Association in 1976-1979). I haven’t read anything more than the Economist review of Dietrich Vollrath’s Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success, but he is clearly another mainstream economist developing the same sorts of ideas. Mr Vollrath’s contribution is to bring rigorous numerical analysis to the table, where I have been plying with airy ideas.

Which brings me to my next point. A modern, developed economy will not show much in the way of GDP growth. We have become so conditioned to thinking that growth is a sign of economic health that this takes a lot of getting used to. But it is perfectly consistent with human wellbeing advancing. People may consume less stuff per head, but they can still have increasing levels of physical and mental wellbeing, and live in a nicer, friendlier and healthier environment. Mainstream economists have a tendency to suggest that people are being irrational if they consume less, work less, buy organic vegetables and have a healthier lifestyle, but the irrationality is theirs.

But a “stagnant” economy does bring a problem in its wake, and that problem is taxes and funding the public sector. GDP measures the size of the money economy, and the money economy is central to way governments operate. Indeed you can make a good case that money was invented so that the state could organise armies, build infrastructure and hoard surplus food. While the state could, and did, do this through forced labour and the appropriation of harvests and other goods, a system of taxation and wages is much more flexible. The rival idea that money was invented to facilitate trade is harder to sustain, though it used to feature a lot in economics text books. Of course the two functions of money, taxation and trade, fed off each other in a virtuous circle.

This all matters because there is no sign that the role of the state (in the broadest sense of collective public action) is about to diminish. The expansion of the state is one of the most important developments of the 20th Century, starting in large part with the creation of war economies, and then a dramatic expansion of the state role in education, healthcare and pensions and other welfare payments. To many on the right, this expansion of the state is seen as a hideous intrusion on human freedom that needs to be reversed. In fact it is a response to two important developments. The first is the tendency of capitalism to self-destruction, as noted by Karl Marx. If the capitalists succeed in creating too much profit, which is then hoarded, fewer people will benefit from the possibilities that the economy offers, and the system stagnates and collapses. If the state taxes those profits and hands them out to the less well off, this creates demand for capitalism’s products and the system is saved. (This is not the only way: capitalists being more generous with paying their workers has a similar effect, though it usually it takes organised labour to make this happen).

The second development causing the increased size of the state is the good old Baumol effect, which is the main driver of the new economics. The private sector is becoming so efficient that the relative cost of public goods is rising compared to what gets traded in private markets. Everything is more expensive in defence, law enforcement and healthcare. This issue is getting more acute. Public services are generally overstretched and many of their employees are underpaid. Stinginess on welfare benefits is creating knock-on problems elsewhere in society.

But this creates a political challenge. Public services need to be funded through taxes (it is possible to have a theological debate on this with MMT advocates, but let me duck that for now – without taxation public spending leads to inflation). People are generally willing to pay quite a bit of tax, but this comes at a political cost. Politicians have tried to sidestep this through economic growth. If the money economy is growing, then the state collects more money while keeping the tax rates the same. Those familiar with Baumol thinking will realise that this always was flawed thinking, as productivity in the public sector lags that in the private sector. But now we are in the stagnant phase of our economic evolution, the argument collapses completely.

That points to the raising of taxes, and all the political problems that come with that. But behind this there is a bit of a puzzle. For now state budget deficits look quite sustainable, as do higher levels of state borrowing. The fear is that deficit spending will create inflation, and high levels of public debt create financial instability – and that the risks are higher if the economy isn’t growing. But there is no sign that inflation is close to be awakened in developed economies, while monetary policy can be used to manage high levels of government debt, provided that you are borrowing in your own currency, and inflation is dormant. Meanwhile private sector demand for public debt remains very healthy. So just when do we need those higher taxes?

That is the central problem at the heart of the modern political economy. I don’t have an answer. But longer term there are three important things about a liberal approach to the new economics that I do hold on to:

  1. The government’s extra flexibility on fiscal deficits and debt should be exploited through investment programmes, creating assets that can be separately financed if necessary. These include social housing and renewable energy infrastructure. We need to be more careful with hospitals and transport infrastructure, but there are doubtless opportunities there too.
  2. The day when extra taxes will be needed to fund more public services will arrive. When it does the level of public accountability will need to improve substantially. This points to the need for a profound devolution of power, and especially the power to raise taxes, backed up greatly improved public governance.
  3. Meanwhile public services will need to be more efficient and effective (which is not the same as being more productive in my vocabulary). That means a profound switch to preventing and solving problems rather than service delivery and ticking boxes. That will require specialised services to work in a much more integrated way with much more delegated authority – and that means that services. mainly, need to be more localised. Which, of course, fits neatly with point 2.

I think this could be the basis for a grand bargain between liberals and either the left or, even, the right. The signs that either end of the political spectrum, or indeed liberals, are up for this are mixed. But there are some stirrings. On the other hand unscrupulous forces of the right or left could exploit the extra flexibility on public finances to line their friends’ pockets and consolidate political control while pretending to address the needs of “ordinary people”.

The rules of political economy have changed. Mainstream politicians and commentators haven’t noticed

Before the great financial crash of 2007-2008 there was a solid consensus as to the sorts of economic policies governments should pursue. In fact the underlying realities have been changing for some time. These new realities now dominate in developed economies, and yet the political mainstream hasn’t caught up. It is one of the reasons that populist politicians, not least Donald Trump, are doing relatively well when they defy the old rules.

What were those rules? First is that GDP growth is a critical indicator of economic wellbeing, and that increased productivity is the driver of this. Politicians should push through “supply-side” policies that improve productivity, which will allow income per head to grow, and with it individual incomes and wellbeing. With productivity apparently in the doldrums since the crash, especially here in Britain, there is much shaking of heads. Before the crash economists had thought something they referred to as “trend growth” of about 2% per annum was practically a law of nature. Many still think its disappearance is a failure of policy.

Second, governments must maintain a prudent fiscal policy that does not allow high levels of public debt to pile up. Public spending must be paid for through higher taxes. High levels of public debt can destabilise an economy, it was thought. This went alongside the idea that if public spending was not restrained it would be wasted, and cause low productivity.

Third: free trade is essential to a healthy economy. This follows from basic economics: the principle of comparative advantage. During the years of rapid globalisation of trade from the 1980s to the early 2000s, this idea received a terrific boost as new Asian economies entered the mix, with comparative advantage particularly evident in basic manufacturing. This generated huge gains in trade for both developed and developing economies.

And fourth, interest rate policy is the right way to manage the business cycle to ensure that recessions were smoothed out. This replaced the older post-war idea that fiscal policy was the right way to do this. Interest rate policy (or “monetary policy”) allowed the private sector to expand and contract as required, through an efficient market mechanism, rather than inefficient government direction.

What changed? First of all, the conventional wisdom on monetary policy, which evolved after the old system of fixed exchange rates and capital controls, known as Bretton Woods, collapsed in the early 1970s, led to an explosion of private debt. While policy makers liked to think that the policy was sustainable, there was a clear trend towards higher private debt and lower interest rates. This contributed to the great financial crash. Now interest levels can’t go lower, and people worry more about financial stability. This means that monetary policy is pretty much done for as means of regulating the cycle, with fiscal policy coming back into the picture, sometimes disguised as monetary policy with such ideas as “quantitative easing”.

Perhaps the most important change, though, was that productivity in manufactured and other tradable goods has advanced so far that they have ceased to have such an important role in the economy as a whole. This is known as the Baumol effect, and it is something I have been banging on about for ages. The modern economy is in fact dominated by things like health care, social care, and services, with status goods and land also playing a larger overall role. The old conventional wisdom around productivity doesn’t really work here.

On top of this environmental degradation, and especially climate change is posing a question that was always there. Is producing and consuming more and more stuff actually advancing human wellbeing? We all need to eat and wear clothes, but do we need to get through quite so much as we do? And yet an economic mindset in which consuming stuff is central to the way we measure wellbeing refuses to die.

A couple of other factors are worth mentioning. First is that the Asian economies are developing fast and converging with the western developed ones. This means that there are fewer gains from trade available, and that the globalisation boom is over; indeed many of those gains will actually reverse as the two worlds converge and comparative advantage diminishes. Second modern industry is not as hungry for capital investment as it used to be. This is partly to do with the Baumol effect, as the relative size of capital intensive industry shrinks, but also to do with the nature of modern technology, which uses more human capital. There are fewer opportunities in the private sector for savings to invest in, at any rate for things that aren’t outright speculative. The main cause of the great crash was an excess of private sector speculation as the relative scale of productive investment diminished.

So what does all this mean? First that it is OK to play fast and loose with fiscal policy. High levels of public debt are quite sustainable because the availability of private investment is diminished. Public debt is safer than private speculation. This is clearly evident in the USA and Japan. In Britain it is a little less clear because the country has a high current account deficit, meaning that is more vulnerable to international changes of mood – but surely there is much more scope than the government is currently using. Second, it is much less damaging than before to play fast and loose with trade policy. Once again Donald Trump is taking full advantage of this. His trade policy is mostly economic nonsense, but he can get away with it. Likewise Brexit is likely to be less dire for Britain than many predict – though the potential upside for “global Britain” is very slim. Trade just doesn’t matter so much, and the opportunities in Asia are disappearing.

All this is good news for populists. Mainstream policy needs to catch up. Policymakers need to drop their obsession with GDP and productivity, and start looking at wider quality of life instead. This includes the prevalence of poverty (I prefer not to focus on inequality, though that is clearly part of the picture), mental health problems and the environment. There needs to be a bigger drive on public investment, but not so much on roads, railways and airports, but on hospitals and healthcare therapies, social housing, and sustainable energy. There is scope for increased private investment here too, but the public element is vital.

There are other ideas, such as universal basic income, though I personally don’t favour this. But a rethink of state benefits is surely important. My instinct is for stronger set of social interventions to reduce poverty and its malign effects, rather than trying to make the problem go away by spraying money everywhere.

How does this work politically? It should be an opportunity for the left. And indeed Britain’s Labour manifesto in last election wasn’t quite as daft as it looked – in theory anyway. Bernie Sanders is making headway in the US in spite of defying conventional wisdom. But politics isn’t just about economics, and the left don’t really seem to grasp the demand for increasing personal autonomy. Besides so much of leftwing activism seems to be a rage against efficiency. Productivity may be an overrated issue, but the need for efficient and effective services remains as vital as ever.

Liberals, meanwhile, are badly compromised by their attachment to the old conventional wisdom. They have not yet found a new vision. Personally I think there is an opportunity for a grand bargain between the left and liberals, but there is no clear sign of this emerging. Meanwhile the political right has a clear opportunity. In the US they seem to be wasting it by failing to recognise that an efficient and effective state is critical to the future. They are failing to face up to the challenge on healthcare and the environment. In the UK the picture is different. The Conservatives are interested in courting more liberal-minded voters, and have not abandoned the idea of reducing carbon emissions, for example, or investing more in healthcare.

But at the moment the new rules of economics are providing more opportunities for the unscrupulous than they are to those genuinely want to make the world a better place. it is no wonder that the political centre is in such a mess.

So farewell then EU

On Friday Britain leaves the European Union. This will not be marked in any very big or public way, any more than the country’s entry into the European Economic Community was in 1973. That reflects the country’s ambiguity towards the institution, but I for one will will be sad.

I was not old enough to vote in the 1976 referendum on staying in, held on the day of my Physics A Level practical, but I was a passionate supporter of the idea then. Most of my generation was (with less passion in most cases…), though many changed their mind since. Back in the 1970s we younger Britons were tired our country: its strikes, its badly-run public services, which included utilities such as gas and telephones. Unemployment and inflation were high, and the country had suffered a steady decline in its prestige since the glory days of the War, not just relative to the USA, but to France, Germany and even Italy. Modernisation meant tasteless sliced bread, soul-destroying motorway flyovers, and tower blocks that were already falling down. The country needed a good shaking, and most of our European neighbours seemed to be doing a better job. We rejected the prejudices of our parents’ generation and its complaints about greasy food and garlic.

Our hopes were mainly fulfilled. In many ways the country mended itself from the 1980s onwards. National prestige was largely restored; first inflation then unemployment came down; public services became better managed. Strikes vanished. Modernisation was the internet and the mobile phone: things that were of demonstrable value. How much of this was down to being a member of the EEC/EU can’t be said, of course. And the picture wasn’t all good. Many industries, such as steel and coal, continued their precipitous decline. Middle level jobs, in offices and factories, were hollowed out. These were replaced by both better jobs (managerial and computing) and worse (call-centre operators).

So why did so many of my generation turn against “Europe”? At this point it is very easy to repeat standard tropes. We have a picture of white working-class people in “left-behind” towns in the north and on the coast being the drivers of Brexit. But the pro-Brexit feeling went much further and wider than this. It went right across the class spectrum, and swept in swathes of respectable middle-class suburbia, and lots of working class people who were far from being “left-behind”. It was a complex business, but mainly seems to be a reaction against the metropolitanism that had come to dominate the political class. Metropolitans shrugged at the agents of change, such as the influx of immigrants and an increasing body of restrictive regulations with which the country had to conform, or, indeed, the lack of them, for example border controls. Many people felt that something important had been lost, and that the politicians didn’t care.

I did not share these misgivings: I am a metropolitan. I am only tangentially part of the political class and certainly no part of a ruling elite, but I am much closer to them than most. I understand what the political class is trying to do and have largely supported it. I like change. Leaving the EU I do not feel any sense of regaining anything meaningful, but I do feel that I have had rights taken away from me.

Still, stepping back it is hard not to think that the political class deserved the kicking that was administered to it by the Brexit episode. Politics became dominated by professional politicians who never experienced much life outside politics and its hangers on in PR, lobbying, think tanks, journalism, the charity sector and so on.They had little empathy with many voters, and simply assumed they would come round to the various changes imposed on them in time, as they were good for them. The MPs expenses scandal, which overwhelmed the later years of the Labour government of 1997 to 2010 was revealing. MPs were drawn from young, upwardly mobile professionals (or yuppies as they used to be called) and were envious of their contemporaries who were making fortunes in finance, consultancy and other better-paid fields. So they indulged in a little bit of creative catching up. They paid almost no thought as to how this might look to the people they represented.

So what happens now? Politicians start the long, slow business of reconnecting with the voters. The Conservatives are further ahead with this than the other parties. Their parliamentary party look and sound very different from the old-style sharp political professionals. It may take Labour a bit longer. They were in process of replacing one sort of disconnected political professional (the smooth Blairites) with another (hard-left activists) when the election struck. The scale of their defeat has left them all over the place, but the only way back for them is get back out onto the doorsteps and reconnect; they will learn that eventually. Similar comments can be made about the Lib Dems, who tend to think of themselves as establishment rebels, but have been all to eager to seek establishment respectability. Its former leader, Jo Swinson, exemplified the metropolitan political class as well as anybody.

Just how this will work itself out is anybody’s guess. For all their faults, the metropolitans were mainly right (I would say that wouldn’t I…); they just made almost no attempt to engage with and communicate with people who were unsympathetic. The country will not necessarily stay on an inward-looking anti-progressive path.

And what of Brexit? Clearly it’s going to get messy, as the country still has not settled on a clear vision of what it wants to be. It would be nice to think that the country will come to a resolution of these issues in time – but the blame game is likely to keep going. Brexiteers will heap opprobrium on the EU and our European neighbours as things turn sour; Remainers will indulge in “told-you-so”, blaming everything on Brexit, fairly or otherwise.

But boredom will win out in the end. I would like it, of course, if the country could find some way to rejoin the EU in due course, but not until public support reaches the two-thirds level; we have had enough of one small majority imposing its will on the rest.Meanwhile the EU itself will change and the journey back may become harder. I am unlikely to regain my lost freedoms and lost pride in my country in my lifetime. And that makes me sad.

Why is the left losing the argument in the country at large?

Nothing illustrates Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s failings more than his assertion that, at the last general election, his party “won the argument”. The party’s vote went down by 2.6 million. Any sense in which the party won an argument is so abstract as to be worse than useless. But not enough people on the left realise just how much trouble they are in.

While some on the left show shocking complacency, others exhibit a level of despair similar to that in 1992, after the Conservatives won their fourth successive victory (and proper victories, unlike 2010 and 2017) when voters fled from Labour and the Lib Dems at the last minute. If the Tories could win then, in such an unpromising election for them, it seemed to presage them winning forever. The journalist Will Hutton caught the mood with a political bestseller The State We’re In. In it he suggested that the Tories had so deeply penetrated civil society that they were unbeatable. He also decried Tory (and American) economic policies, while praising those of Germany and Japan. Only a few years later Labour won their biggest ever election victory and the Tories were knocked so far away from power that people dared to think they would never regain it. Meanwhile Germany and Japan plunged into an economic crisis from which, seemingly, only Anglo-Saxon economic policies could lift them. It is surprising that Mr Hutton dared to show his face in public again, but newspaper comment by him still pops up quite regularly.

The Labour and Lib Dem revival was evident in the elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005. This led to complacency on the centre-left, and the idea of a “progressive majority” that was floated back in 1992. It was observed that if you added the Labour and Lib Dem votes (and perhaps the Greens too) there was a clear majority of the popular vote: 55-60%. This was advanced as a reason to embrace proportional representation, which would confine the Tories to a prison. But as politics poisoned after the MPs expenses scandals, and the financial crash, the weakness in this line of argument became plain. Ukip rose as a fourth, emphatically non-progressive force. The Tories revived in the 2010 election, and Labour and the Lib Dems were unable to form a parliamentary majority, though they had 52% of the vote between them. The Lib Dems entered coalition with the Conservatives instead.

The Lib Dem vote promptly collapsed, but the idea of a progressive majority persisted. Labour reckoned they could win on their own simply by picking up disillusioned Lib Dem voters, without trying to convert any Tories. This suited the Labour left, and its increasingly vocal socialist element, which had been marginalised in Labour’s government years, and which was energised by opposition to the coalition’s austerity policies. But, alas, this simply drove more Lib Dem supporters into the arms of the Conservatives, who formed an outright majority in 2015 (with a combined Labour and Lib Dem vote of just 38%), mainly by picking up Lib Dem seats. By now the “progressive majority” was shown to be a clear fiction: adding Ukip and Conservative vote share took you to more than 50%. Proportional representation would not have saved the “progressives”. And that is more or less where things have stuck since. In 2019 Labour and the Lib Dems mustered just 44% between them, down from 47% in 2017. That leaves the left with an uncomfortable truth: they will not win majority support unless they win over substantial numbers of Conservative voters: that they “win the argument”, in other words. And they haven’t done that since the great financial crisis of 2007/08, unless you count that narrow majority of votes in 2010.

Much has been written about this, but most of the thinking has been done by people on the right of politics. Their analysis focuses on values, and the way many voters crave a sense of belonging, undermined by a rootless liberal elite, or left-wingers impassioned by foreign causes. This is fine as far as it goes, but thinkers on the left have a long tradition (starting with Marx and Engels) of looking at economic interests, which they assume lie behind people’s values. This has often been taken too far, but right now there is not enough of it. The narrative of the left is that it is on the side of the “many”, often quantified as 95% or even 99% of the population, against an economy “rigged” by “the few”. This clearly isn’t working.

There are two things to observe about the strength of the right. First is that it is based on older people, as it wins over increasing numbers of the baby-boomer generation. The second, heavily overlapping, point is that they appeal to people who own property, or who have an inheritable interest in property. They are especially making progress in “left-behind” areas where property values are sinking, creating a sense of grievance.

For the most part Conservatives have been very sensitive to the needs of these groups. I remember seeing an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that austerity policies after 2010 largely bypassed older voters, whose lot improved overall. Old age pensions were improved and tax allowances raised. Interestingly these policies were driven forward enthusiastically by the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Lib Dems, for whom the “triple lock” on state pensions was a cornerstone policy. A Lib Dem minister, Steve Webb, skilfully piloted pension reform that postponed pensions for many with minimal political damage. It is no accident that the left’s biggest moment of opportunity since 2010, the 2017 election which saw a surge in Labour support, came when the Conservatives dropped the ball on looking after older voters, with their proposals on social care. There was no chance of them repeating that mistake.

Property ownership, meanwhile, is becoming the critical economic dividing line in British society. Ownership is steadily sinking as housing becomes less affordable, but it still remains high, at over 60%. This does not fit the narrative of “the many” versus “the few”. By and large, property owners and older voters are not so exercised about austerity policies, and are less concerned about changing working practices, such as zero hours contracts. They are distrustful of the radicalism that the left trumpets so loudly. This may not be wholly rational. If austerity has caused economic growth to sag, then this affects the property market. But the left is more comfortable stoking up a sense of outrage amongst people who rent their homes, or have a dependency on the types of benefits that have been cut, than they are in making more nuanced claims for the benefit of Britain’s top three quintiles of income.

Won’t time shift these factors in the left’s favour? The older voters are dying, while more younger ones enter the electorate. We often heard that argument in the context of the Brexit referendum. But people’s political perspective changes as they age, and the left seems to be losing its grip on voters in the middle of the age range. The proportion of older voters is likely to go up, demographers tell us. Things are more promising from that perspective on property ownership, which has been falling steadily. But the change is slow and the Conservatives are acutely sensitive to this, doing what they can to make sure new homes are built, and that people can get themselves onto the property ladder.

So what should the left do? It can hardly ditch its core support among younger voters and those renting homes in order to win over Conservatives and Brexit Party supporters. Some of the policies needed to address the needs poorer and more disadvantaged voters will hurt property owners (e.g. more social housing undermining property prices) and older people (e.g. higher taxes on investments). In my previous post on Labour I suggested three things; radicalism (less of it), pluralism (more) and competence (also more).

The one party that has made some headway in attracting former Conservative voters is the Lib Dems. It has done this by being only marginally on the left (many Lib Dems, myself included, hesitate to call ourselves of the left at all). But it still signs up to many signature left wing priorities: better public services and stronger action on the environment in particular. The party is still vilified by many on the far left, who call them “Yellow Tories”. In the last election Labour sent its activists into seats like Carshalton, Wimbledon and Finchley because they preferred the Conservatives to win these than let the Lib Dems gain traction. But unless the Lib Dems are allowed to gather up Conservative votes, even as they gather Labour ones too, the left as a whole will not succeed.

There is another way forward, as suggested by the coalition of 2010. That is for parts of the left to team up with Conservatives in order to make headway on critical priorities. This has happened in Germany with its grand coalition, and now a Green-Christian Democrat alliance being mooted. The Greens and the conservatives have formed a coalition in Austria. The Lib Dems experience in the 2010 coalition was unhappy, in that its support collapsed, though it can point to achievements. The German SPD’s experience is hardly better. The Lib Dems will not be tempted to go down that route again. But if Labour continues on the road mapped out by Mr Corbyn, that may be the only option for the left to have a serious influence on government.

Radicalism, pluralism and competence: 3 things Labour needs to rethink

The left loves its abstract nouns. So, as Labour ponders what it needs to do to come back from its disastrous showing in last month’s general election, I have three more abstract nouns for its members to contemplate: radicalism, pluralism and competence.

Abstract nouns may be how many political activists like me think about things, but they can be dangerous. They are not good for communicating ideas to the public at large, and they are often used to paper over tricky choices. It is important when thinking through these ideas that we move onto more concrete territory about what actually needs to be done. We don’t want to just invent some more abstract phrases which over-promise and under-deliver: “progressive patriotism” anybody?

So let’s start with radicalism. Leftist politicians talk far too much about it as if it was self-evidently a good thing. We are interested in politics because we want to change things; we have a low opinion of most current public institutions; we see unfairness and injustice everywhere. So it seems natural to advocate radical change. But radicalism has a dark side: it means change and change means insecurity. It also invites scepticism. Many people are fed up with politicians promising to change everything, and then either not delivering, or delivering things that make things worse. And these attitudes prevail amongst the voters that Labour lost to the Conservatives (or so I believe). Telling them that you are going to shake everything up with transformative change for a fairer society cuts little ice. Labour politicians need to tone it down, and present a more reassuring face to the public.

A lot of this is purely about presentation. Brexit is a radical policy after all, but retains a strong appeal amongst conservative voters. That is because it is being presented as a step backwards, to undo the unwanted radicalism that has been inflicted over the last generation. It was a critical step in the Leave campaign in 2016 to include the word “back” in their slogan “Take back control”. A lot of Labour’s radical policies can be re-presented in this way. Nationalisation of the railways, and perhaps other utilities, can be seen as going back to a time before these services were messed up. Whether people will be convinced that a return to secondary picketing and collective wage bargaining as a positive is open to question, but they are certainly steps backwards. The abolition of student fees is easier, even though the scale of the fiscal cost is much greater than in the gold old days. Indeed it is a valid line of criticism of Labour’s policy platform that it owes more to nostalgia than genuinely radical thinking.

But a bit of slick re-presentation will fool nobody. Labour needs to reverse some of its radical promises as well as its rhetoric. This is a competency issue too (I’m coming to that). Some signature policies, like free broadband, are obvious choices. But to convince the public that they really have changed, Labour needs to roll back something that will create a bit of a stink within its own ranks: if it ain’t hurting, it ain’t working. Dropping free student tuition would do that job, but would probably hurt too much. A substantial roll-back of nationalisation plans might be better though it would have less impact. Funnily enough the first election manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, in 2017, was much better than its 2019 one on this front, though incomplete (no attention was paid as to how its abolition of tuition fees would work in practice, for example).

Pluralism means accepting that a variety of political viewpoints should be tolerated and allowed to be expressed within the political process. Most Labour people say that the party should be a “broad church” accommodating a wide range of views. Fewer accept that other political parties have any useful role to play on the left or “progressive” side of politics. (I put “progressive” in quotation marks in deference to the English language: many “progressives” are not progressive at all; not all progressives are “progressive”). And many seem to think that Conservatives and others on the political right have no moral legitimacy, and that people only support them because they have some evil purpose in mind, or have been duped by some or other conspiracy of misinformation. While pluralism within the party, within “progressive” politics and within politics at large might seem to be three separate issues, it is critical to understand that they are linked. If you think Tories are evil, and that Labour’s essential purpose is to oppose them, then it is a short step to thinking that other non-Tory parties are a distraction or worse. And it is a short step from this to viewing politics as a battle between good and evil, in which you should be on your guard against evil influences in your own party, and vigorously oppose them.

At best Labour has an image problem. Where the Conservatives successfully promoted their slogan of “Get Brexit Done”, the nearest Labour came to an equivalent signature phrase was “Why don’t you f**k off and join the Tories”, applied by their activists to anybody who dared oppose their views from other parties such as the Lib Dems (“Yellow Tories”) and within their own party. Far too many people followed that advice. The most visible sign of trouble is the party’s problems with antisemitism. A party that conducted its internal discussions in a more civilised way would not have allowed the sort of abuse that some Jewish members faced to get anything like as far, or to see some of the abusers get off so lightly. This intolerance is damaging the party’s image with the public, and it gives other parties, especially the Lib Dems, a reason for existing.

The funny thing is that Mr Corbyn is the model of politeness in person, and a keen advocate of a “kinder, gentler” politics in general. This shows how difficult it will be for Labour to change its culture. One way in which a new leader might show how things have changed is to work with rival “progressive” parties more readily. I think this needs to go as far as entering into limited electoral pacts. Others suggest that the way forward is to promote electoral reform and proportional representation. As a good liberal I should support this, but I am not sure that this is actually in Labour’s interests. It would be an attack on traditional British ways that might well upset the conservative voters it needs to attract. And anyway I am not sure Labour should give up on the idea of being a broad, pluralistic and democratic movement along the lines of the US Democrats. There is a paradox here: in order to show that there is no need for rival parties on the left it needs to embrace those parties rather than reject them. An electoral pact of some sort would be a powerful signal of that; and pushing such an idea through with a controversial conference motion would show that the new leader means business, rather than mouthing sweet nothings about a “pluralist Labour family”, as leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey has put it.

Which brings me to competence: even Ms Long-Bailey admits that Labour has a credibility problem. The problem is not just to embody competence, but to project it to the public at large. To do this the party needs to overcome some archetypes that many in the public have of liberals and leftists. One is the woolly liberal, who spends too much time listening to nonsense and avoiding hard choices. Another is the permanent whinger, who will never be satisfied, and never take responsibility. People come across these archetypes in their daily lives, and know that they make terrible leaders, even if they often like them or agree with them. Mr Corbyn seemed to alternate between both of these archetypes. He couldn’t make up his mind about Brexit. He protested about everything. And Labour’s election manifesto embodied the problem. The policies may have been individually popular but they were collectively incredible. Life is about choices, and Labour were promising everything now, with a team with little experience of government.

These three abstract nouns work together. A competent Labour shadow government is one where people are chosen on ability, not on loyalty to the leader or ideological soundness. A competent manifesto is one that balances its radicalism with leaving some ideas for later.

Labour’s next big decision is to elect its new leader. How do the candidates shape up on this agenda? It’s hard to tell because candidates tend to say what it takes to get elected, and so it is hard to know what they would actually do. It is also not clear who those candidates will be as the number will get thinned down by the obstacle course of the nomination process. I will comment when the field has been whittled down.

Donald Trump’s message to Iran: get nukes fast

US President Donald Trump doesn’t do quiet confidence. If he had, then he might have ended 2019 displaying it. Which makes his actions in Iran in early 2020 baffling.

As Autumn approached Mr Trump might have been worried about his reelection and his legacy. He came into office promising to show his vaunted business skills, in contrast to his inept predecessors. He was the arch deal maker, he claimed. And yet he had practically nothing to show for it. His attempts to negotiate with North Korea had run into the sand. His dramatic ripping up of the “worst deal ever” to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions had not restrained that country’s foreign adventures, and seemed to be hastening the day when it would become nuclear. There were almost no trade deals: even the replacement for NAFTA was stuck in Congress. On other issues, his attempt to negotiate a fabulous new deal for Americans on healthcare had long since collapsed. It was painfully slow to find funding for his border wall. He had aggressively slapped tariffs on Chinese trade, but he seemed unable to close any kind of deal with China, while America’s trade deficit roared ahead. His one significant achievement in his term to date was corporate tax cuts, which probably left most Americans unimpressed.

It got worse. He allowed Turkey’s President Erdogan to talk him into winding down the American presence in Syria, abandoning his Kurdish ally. Whatever strategic sense this made, it was tactically inept. It angered many of his Republican allies.

But this blew over, and things started to look up. As the race to be his Democratic opponent in 2020 started to heat up, it became clear that each of the candidates had weaknesses that he could exploit. There is nobody he can be truly scared of. The House of Representatives also cracked after revelations on Mr Trump’s attempts to pressurise Ukraine, and set impeachment proceedings in motion. This largely works in Mr Trump’s favour; ordinary voters will not be able to fully understand his wrongdoing and its implications, especially after these are buried by the barrage of nonsense supplied by him and his many allies. The whole episode will just serve to distract attention from his weak record in office. Meanwhile he managed to close a deal with the Democrats in Congress for the NAFTA replacement, and some kind of interim deal with China looks close. The wall is being built. Even in the Middle East, Iran was under increasing pressure from its own people, and those fed up with its meddling in Iraq and Lebanon. Thin pickings, perhaps, and North Korea is going from bad to worse, but enough for Mr Trump to suggest things were going his way at last. His core support was holding up. If opinion polls still seemed against him, he might reflect that they were probably good enough: all he needs to do in November is hold the states that voted for him last time; he needs no majority in the popular vote. Enough for some quiet confidence.

But then came the Iran/Iraq episode. He firstly overreacted to a militia attack on a US base in Iraq, and then, after those Iranian-backed militias made a not-all-that-serious attack on the US embassy, he launched his assassination of Qasem Soleimani and his associates. This is a dramatic escalation, to which Iran has “no choice”, in the oft-repeated phrase, to respond. The Iranian government is playing the episode for all it is worth to distract attention from its other troubles.

What makes this very striking is that it goes against the general restraint Mr Trump has shown in the Middle East. He is much criticised for this, and has shown no tactical acumen, but he is not wrong in principle. Not, at any rate, in his wish to disengage the US military involvement, and treat Russian adventurism with a shrug. We need to get beyond the post-colonialist thinking that everything that happens in the region is somehow the result of US and western government actions, while denying multiple local actors agency and responsibility themselves. Mr Trump is, though, wrong in principle to think that ripping up the Iranian nuclear deal and applying sanctions to that country will make it more amenable, rather than making the whole region a lot messier. This is the logic of the bully, who assumes their own actions are principled and everybody else simply responds to the exercise of menace.

The defence put up by Mr Trump’s supporters are really hard to fathom. Soleimani was a bad man and his removal will make peace more likely, they say. Soleimani, and his like in the Iranian regime, are indeed bad people. They use innocent human lives as pawns in their games, and have no compunction in perpetrating murder. But he was also a senior state actor, and acting against him is like declaring war on the Iranian state. Assassination is a very dubious instrument of state policy. Israel has long used it, but its conflicts with neighbours and people within its borders have just dragged on regardless. The Iranians are no worse than the Russians, but would the US attack senior Russian officials in this way?

Which brings me to the central point. The US under Mr Trump treats nuclear armed powers with respect, even such mavericks as North Korea. Mr Trump seems to think that the rational response to his behaviour is to come to the negotiating table to make serious concessions. Iranian leaders are just as likely to think that the only rational course for them is to acquire nuclear weapons as fast as they can.

As I write the Iranian response has begun with some missile strikes at US bases in Iraq. They are suggesting that this is the limit of their response, though it is hard to know whether to take that seriously. Mr Trump seems to be shrugging it off. If that is all that happens, then Mr Trump will have got off lightly, and he and his supporters will claim victory.

But earlier the Iranian regime abandoned its vestigial adherence to the nuclear deal. Their thinking may be to deliver this rather underwhelming response and then go as hard and fast as they can for nuclear weapons. In their eyes that is probably the most rational approach: if Mr Trump wants to scale down US action in the Middle East, there will be little they can do to stop Iran, if that country does not present too many easy targets for air strikes.

The US public is unlikely to understand that this is what is happening, and look on Mr Trump’s actions favourably. If so Mr Trump’s faith in his own genius will be affirmed. At some point this has to unravel. Doesn’t it?

Why Dominic Cummings is doomed to fail to reform state inefficiency

I was rather shocked by a story on the radio news last weekend. It was announced that the NHS was about to spend £40m to sort out the login to its IT systems, as staff are wasting lots of time with separate logins to a dozen or more systems. My first reaction was: “Why on earth has it taken them this long to get round to fixing this, if it costs just £40m?”. It was followed by a more depressing thought: they will spend their £40m and still fail to achieve it. And then: “What on earth possessed them to press-release such an embarassing story?”.

It is no wonder that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, has such a low opinion of civil servants and public sector management. The quality of management is appalling. It always has been. One of my earliest memories was just how awful the nationalised gas, electricity and telephone industries were in the 1960s and 1970s. It was worse than even I knew, as the government had lost control of their finances, so that these industries simultaneously drained the public purse and were starved of investment. And the vast scale of wasted resource on nuclear energy development only emerged long after it happened, with nobody accountable as usual. I do remember Harold Wilson (the PM of the time) having to cancel an absurdly ambitious development of a new bomber for the RAF. Things have only got better since then because the state has shrunk. One of many current fiascos is the Universal Credit system: a fatal combination of a visionary minister with a weak grip on reality (Ian Duncan Smith), and civil service project management skills.

It is not all bad. The London primary schools where I have served as governor are as well-managed as any organisation that I have seen, though some of the regulations they have to navigate, and the “guidance” from national and local civil servants can be mind-numbing. There are other pockets. These might give us some clues as why such poor management happens – it is nothing to do with being part of the state as such – and indeed many large monopoly private businesses can be just as bad. Partly it is about accountability and incentives, and partly about complexity. Alas it is impossible to get these right in many areas. Health services are mostly too big and complex (our NHS isn’t particularly inefficient in global comparisons, though I imagine few others have the nonsense over IT logins); the secrecy required for national security institutions is the enemy of accountability; and so on.

Mr Cummings wants to address this by a massive shakeup of the civil service, as advertised by his blog, which I don’t read, as it sounds too much like an ego-trip, but this article in the Economist gives more detail. The general idea is to change the culture, to allow in more mavericks as well as engineers and scientists, ensure proper accountability for failure, and to prize competence and the ability to get stuff done, as opposed to just being “a safe pair of hands” (i.e. staying out of trouble before handing the job to somebody else). As somebody who has had a career in management, and experienced the public sector at first hand through my two decades as school governor, I really get this. The serial incompetence of the public sector really annoys me. But with all my experience in management I can see at least three sorts of problem with Mr Cummings’s approach.

Firstly management isn’t just about getting stuff done. There are two types of skill required to be an effective manager. 90% of the attention goes on the first type of skill: task-orientation. Success is generally achieved by picking a small number of priorities and concentrating on them. This seems to be Mr Cummings’s obsession, and he is in line with most people who pontificate about effective management. But there is a second type of skill: risk-management. This is about looking for trouble and heading it off. What most people don’t seem to appreciate is that it requires opposite skills to task-orientation. Task orientation requires focus; risk-management requires the opposite – the ability to step back, gather data from all directions and think about the things that are not priorities. You also require strong judgement as to which potential risks to take seriously and which just to keep a wary eye on – but without that broad horizon it doesn’t work. Some of the worst management disasters (including in the British public sector, notably in the NHS) have occurred from areas outside management’s top three priorities. In theory the incorporation of good risk-management skills is perfectly compatible with Mr Cummings’s idea of maverick managers constantly challenging each other. In practice this is unlikely. In his recent blog he has said “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit”; this does not sound like the sort of culture that welcomes effective risk management.

Secondly there is a clear implication that decision-making is centralised. If you don’t trust public servants in generality, then you are unlikely to delegate much of importance to them. Mr Cummings is as likely to have as low an opinion of government ministers as civil servants. This would certainly be justified in most cases: good management skills are not a requirement for political advancement, and most politicians have had little aptitude for running things. That’s a recipe for everything coming back to Downing Street. And given that the name of the game in Downing Street will be prioritisation, that means that most of the stuff that is referred to it won’t get looked at properly, because it won’t be in No 10’s top three. This will result in either gridlock or things being waved through when they should be challenged.

And the third type of problem is lack of consultation. One of the most tiresome things for people who want to get stuff done is listening to a wide variety of interested parties who might be affected by what you are trying to do. Managers of Mr Cummings’s sort like to short-circuit such time-wasting and have a good chuckle when people complain. Consultation is hard work, and most of the concerns people raise are about making sure their lives don’t get changed too much, sod the bigger picture. But not only is it good for risk management, but it is also good politics. People get less angry if they have been consulted about things, and it is useful to know who the big trouble-makers are likely to be, and whether there are easy ways to head off some of the trouble.

In my recent post on Boris Johnson’s government I suggested that his and Mr Cummings’s approach would lead to cronyism. This is what happened to the academy programme driven forward by Mr Cummings at the Department of Education. Doubtless Mr Cummings views this as a success because he pushed it through further and faster than anybody thought possible. But it achieved little in advancing the quality of education. It was not in fact over-centralised – but the rather extreme model of delegation he adopted meant that the unscrupulous made hay. And his impatience for consultation meant that academies were run by a small number of politically well-connected organisations, and not the sort “bottom-up” local groups that the policy was supposed to empower. And it created a huge stink, which meant that he and his minister were moved on earlier than people though they would be. Now this failure may be because of the lack of competence of education department civil servants (I have certainly seen that claimed by an initial enthusiast disillusioned by the results) – but that was a factor that had to be managed rather than bulldozed through. In the end Mr Cummings and his boss Michael Gove were responsible for a classic public sector failure themselves.

So what should the government do about poor public sector management? Most approaches have drawbacks, which is why the problem is so persistent. Delegated management and accountability – part of the formula with schools – can work very well, but won’t for large, complex monopolies. Holding managers to measurable targets, the big idea of former Labour reformer Gordon Brown, often has perverse results and leads to poor risk management. Outsourcing, favoured by many Tories, has often disappointed: because the process itself needs to be well-managed and not treated as an exercise in buck-passing, and because it often means carving up processes in ways that make the whole harder to manage. Labour claim to have new ideas to improve accountability to service users; these should not be dismissed, but scepticism is warranted. I think regional and district devolution of political responsibility is an important part of the solution, but it could take a long time before this shows results. Politicians are likely to misuse their new-found powers at first, and the centre is also likely to implement it in such a half-hearted way that the benefits will be hard to obtain.

In some ways I wish Mr Cummings luck – especially with the country’s appalling defence procurement processes. But his ideas are both strategically and tactically misconceived and he may well end up making things worse rather than better.

Labour: tactical errors and a strategic weakness

The disappointment for Labour supporters of last month’s British general election result must be crushing. Back in 2017, after the party’s surprisingly strong performance at the June election, I remember a Labour-supporting union official talking as if the party was going to bring down the minority Tory government and install itself in power in a matter of months. Many Labour supporters had convinced themselves that the evils of the Tory government were evident to all, and that it would be a simple matter to build on their 2017 result and win. Instead they took a long step backwards, more than reversing the advances made in 2017, with their worst electoral result since 1935. It hard to imagine that they can win the next election, itself likely to be four years or more away. So instead of liberation being just around the corner, it now looks as if it could be nearly a decade away.

Understandably there is quite a bit of denial going on amongst Labour politicians. This was evident from its leader Jeremy Corbyn’s graceless speech on election night itself. He blamed Brexit and the media, suggested that Labour’s manifesto had been popular, and (this may have been in a later speech) that Labour had “won the argument”. Only later did he seem to allow the possibility that he and his leadership team might have made mistakes.

Funnily enough, though Mr Corbyn’s claims were widely ridiculed, they were not without some substance. Brexit was indeed the battering ram used by the Tories to break into former Labour strongholds. Mr Corbyn had tried and failed to bridge the divide within Labour on the issue; the party did well enough amongst Remain voters (actually rather better than that, given the party’s other disadvantages), but at the cost of alienating Leave supporters. The printed media was predictably hostile to Labour, and this had the effect of setting the agenda for broadcast media. Many of Labour’s manifesto policies were popular, and its radicalism provoked remarkably little comment. Labour could indeed be said to have “won the argument” on subjects other than Brexit, because the Conservatives did not make much effort to engage with them, so relentless was their focus on “Get Brexit Done”. Tories did not make much attempt to defend their party’s record on austerity, for example, and even made vague promises to reverse it.

And yet most Labour members will realise that these explanations for Labour’s defeat are inadequate. Brexit was not an issue that came out of the blue to take the Labour leadership by surprise. Labour’s predicament arose from the party leadership’s allergy to hard choices. The party needed to back Theresa May’s deal with the EU (or at least let it through by abstention) so that the country could have left irrevocably last March, and the Tories saddled with an unpopular leader trying to handled a muddled aftermath. Or, much more riskily, it could have come out hard and early for a further referendum and pushed it through with the help of Tory rebels. And as for the media hostility, this was another known factor, that the party overcame quite successfully in 2017; print media are much less influential than they used to be. In fact the party’s, and leader’s, unpopularity was significantly reversed in the campaign – but they were never going to overcome problems in their core messaging. Labour rightly claimed its manifesto to be the most radical of any major party in recent history (perhaps since the Labour manifesto of 1945). And so it should worry Labour supporters that this fact evinced very little enthusiasm outside its activist supporters, even if outright hostility was less than predicted. The fact that the Tories left so many of Labour’s claims uncontested was not because Labour had “won the argument” but because the were intent on having another argument, about Brexit, and the public showed little enthusiasm to talk about anything else.

The hard question for Labour, and to pick up on the theme of my posts on the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, is trying to understand how much their problems arose from bad tactical choices and how much from strategic weakness. There were plenty of bad tactical choices. The Brexit predicament had elements of both: the party was in a very difficult strategic position, with so much of its critical core support in the Leave camp, but so many of their activists ardent Remainers. In fact I think the Labour leadership made the correct strategic choice: to allow Brexit to happen but blame the Tories for it, but it failed through weak tactical management. When it came to the election, the party seemed to opt for a sort of micro-targeting strategy: making separate promises to lots of different interest groups. Students were to get free tuition and loan write-odds, WASPI women to get generous compensation, environmentalists got radical-sounding policies on climate change, and there were all manner of goodies for public sector workers, and so on. But the overall result was a loss of focus on core messages; besides a lot of the promises were aimed at people that Labour did not need to convert (younger voters and public sector workers) and not to the people they really needed to win over. The WASPI women promise was an exception (these are older women whose entitlement to state pensions was put back), but the way in which the policy was presented left people disbelieving it – coming after (and outside of) a manifesto brimming with an impossible sounding list of promises.

But the tactical mistakes mask a huge strategic problem for Labour that has been evident since they lost power in 2010. They have almost nothing of interest to say say to a vast swathe of middle class and working class voters in suburban and rural England and in towns outside the big cities in England and Wales. Labour’s central narrative since 2010 has been anger at “austerity” – the cutbacks to public services and benefits implemented Tory and Tory-led governments. This anger has largely bypassed these voters, who instead tend to think public money is wasted, especially on people they suppose to be undeserving. These voters are largely employed by the private sector or retired, so appeals to secure and improve public sector jobs don’t move them, while they have largely escaped the effects of austerity in their own lives (public pensions have generally become more generous). Labour strategy has been to ignore these voters, hoping that working class voters would stick by the party through traditional loathing of the Tories, while they improved turnout from younger voters, public sector workers and ethnic minorities. They doubtless hoped that demographic changes were working in their favour. But successful as they were in drawing in younger voters, and metropolitan public sector workers, their efforts positively alienated older working class and middle class voters. A lot of their alienation was focused on Mr Corbyn himself, but sure their dislike of him reflected a deeper distrust of the movement he headed.

It is precisely this strategic challenge that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown successfully met in the 1990s, leading to 13 years in power for the party. Their strategy was to ape Tory policies in order to get themselves elected, and then to increasingly give them a social democratic slant once in power. Alas the problem has become much harder. The liberal economics on which the Blair/Brown project was based have run their course; the booms arising from globalisation and European integration are over, and there is no other ready source of economic growth to replace them. Policies that appeal to the voters have lost and those they need to win over, will alienate the party’s core support (Brexit was an acute form of this dilemma). Also Labour have lost Scotland, which the Blair/Brown regime had sown up (Brown was himself very much a Scot, though Blair was despised there, despite his Scottish heritage).

And yet Labour has huge strategic strengths. The electoral system allows it to fend off challenges from rival left of centre parties; it retains strong support among younger voters, with a more socially liberal disposition and locked out of property ownership; it has a huge body of hard-working activists, especially in metropolitan areas. It has avoided the implosion of so many European social-democratic parties. These strengths mean that it is certainly feasible that the party could regain power in an astonishing reversal at the next election, even if it is hard to imagine.

But doing so means making hard choices. More on that in a future post.

What are we to expect from the Tories?

I am slowly coming to terms with Britain’s recent general election. So far I have published my thoughts on my own party, the Lib Dems. I actually spend more of my time following and thinking about Labour. This is partly displacement activity and partly because what happens to that party is so important for mine. But the party that dominates UK politics is the Conservatives. It is a big mistake for those on the left (which I suppose I am) to turn inwards on themselves without first taking a long hard look at the success of the right.

In some ways the rise of the Tories is more surprising than the implosion of Labour. Not so long ago the party was being written off. It was riven by divisions, and its core vote was threatened by Nigel Farage’s The Brexit Party. It came fourth in May’s European elections. Its new leader, Boris Johnson, was uninspiring, with a limited and unpromising record in government. But Mr Johnson’s focus on political power was relentless, and he has vanquished his opponents. He ruthlessly crushed TBP and then, just as ruthlessly, exploited weaknesses in Labour’s platform and leadership, and in doing so punctured the resurgent Lib Dems. He and his advisers showed excellent political judgement through all this, but that is an insufficient explanation of their success. They had an advantageous strategic position too. Politicians of the right are able to establish broad appeal across social classes, routing the left and making liberals look irrelevant.

We have seen this in a number of countries, notably with Donald Trump’s success in the USA. Far right parties have done well in Europe too, though they have only achieved control of the government in Poland and Hungary – largely because proportional electoral systems have kept them in check, and also because of the singular success of Emanuel Macron in France, the other major European country not to use a proportional system. Much has been written about this. The striking thing about the Tory example is that it has established a particularly wide coalition of voters, adding up to 44% of those that voted (though this comparable to Mr Trump and to PIS in Poland). This was not in fact much higher in 2019 than in the previous election in 2017, but they drew in a lot of new voters from Labour in the north and middle of England, and in Wales, while shedding votes to the Lib Dems in places that did not matter so much electorally. Britain’s electoral system rewards some coalitions much more than others, and the Tories hit the jackpot this time.

The new Tory voters seem to have been working class and lower middle class ones outside the big cities, and especially older voters. The voters they lost were, as a wild generalisation, middle-aged metropolitan professionals. If there is a common theme to the Tory success it is a combination of nostalgic conservatism, and resentment against a metropolitan elite that looks down on them. One issue crystallised both themes above all: Brexit. It wasn’t so much that they are passionately driven by a wish to leave the EU (though many are), it is the way they thought Remainers were trying to get around the 2016 referendum result. This reinforced all their fears about so-called “progressive” politics. Meanwhile touchstone issues of the left, such as austerity, food banks and student fees didn’t seem to bother these voters much at all.

Will the Tories be able to hang on to these voters, or replace losses with voters from elsewhere? Brexit will after all proceed; it will not be out of the news, of course, but its sting as a political issue may now be drawn. But the experience of Trump and PIS suggests that they might. The 2016 referendum has changed British politics fundamentally – much as the 2014 independence referendum changed Scottish politics. The left will struggle to find an alternative narrative as compelling as the one of nostalgia and victimhood peddled by the right – though the left peddle lots of nostalgia and victimhood too. I will share my thoughts the problems of the left when I come to looking at the Labour Party.

Meanwhile, what are we to expect from the Tories while they are in power for the next four years or so? There are two key figures in this: Mr Johnson and his senior adviser Dominic Cummings. Both have succeeded in spite of the Conservative establishment, and are happy to ditch long-held conventions. Two things stand out about Mr Johnson, both evident from his time as London Mayor. The first is an unwillingness to be held accountable; he evades scrutiny where he can, and says as little as possible of substance. The second is a “just do it” mentality that likes to bulldoze away problems of detail. Both might be refreshing to many people, but there is a considerable dark side. It encourages cronyism and incompetence, which in his time as London Mayor took the form of multiple poorly thought through vanity projects.

Something similar can be said of Mr Cummings, especially when he is in charge running an administrative system rather than a campaign. We saw this when he was senior adviser to Michael Gove when he was minister of education in 2010. Mr Cummings is clever and spiky, despising the bumbling mediocrity of senior administrators and tearing down the structures they have created. But rebuilding something to replace them is much harder. At Education he may have cut through a lot verbiage and nonsense, the legacy 13 years of Labour administration had built huge edifices of the stuff, but the results have been decidedly underwhelming. The signature policy was the replacement of local authority management of schools, which has often proved mediocre in the extreme (if you can have extreme mediocrity), with independent “academy” trusts. This has been bogged down with poor accountability and dodgy practices, such as overpaying senior managers – cronyism and incompetence in fact. Meanwhile the best results in Britain’s schools (and there have been lots of these, contrary to what politicians say) have been achieved through good old-fashioned local authority structures, given appropriate incentives and accountability. The academy revolution has proved a colossal wasted effort.

So cronyism and incompetence will be the hallmarks of this administration, as it has proved for the new right elsewhere in the world. But, as the experience in other countries shows, this will not be fatal for it politically. If they can distract attention with a few socially conservative projects, and the judicious use of cash handouts, then their supporters won’t mind too much, especially. Meanwhile governing institutions will be undermined to stack the odds in favour of the executive, and reforms put in place to tip the odds in their favour at the next election (constituency boundaries and voter ID for starters).

This is not a pleasant prospect. But there is an irony, or paradox, even. The driving idea behind the remaking of the political right is that the country regains a lost moral compass, degraded by the relativism of liberals and multiculturalism of liberals and left alike, a loss that pushes older, less socially advantaged people and those with traditional values to the back of the queue. And yet the new right celebrates cronyism and connections, and undermines traditional ideas of integrity, and that disempowers the less privileged and pushes them even further down the queue. At some point people will come to regret the loss of impartial authority and competence, and rebel against the new elite. Will it then be too late?