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.

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?

Hard lessons for the Liberal Democrats

It is hard being a Lib Dem now in the wake of the recent General Election. The disappointment is oppressive. So many in the party were close to success, and yet it was snatched away and it is probably at least four years before the next opportunity will arise. I notice two sorts of displacement activity. First is to take a close interest in the election post-mortems of the Labour Party with a strong dose of schadenfreude. Second is to discuss (and criticise) the tactical mistakes of the Lib Dem campaign without addressing the party’s strategic predicament.

We have the time to go back to basics, and that is what we need to do. Indeed, understanding the strategic challenge is critical to understanding those tactical mistakes. After reflecting on this in the last few days, I am going to share my current thinking.

The first big strategic challenge is the electoral system. Labour and the Conservatives present the election as being a choice between two Prime Ministers. And they are right. The Lib Dems learnt that the hard way with five years of coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010. Much as people might try to present that as a partnership, or point to the important influence that the Lib Dems had on government policy, the Conservative prime minister was constitutionally and practically in the driving seat. It would have been even worse with a confidence and supply arrangement with a minority government, so that isn’t a satisfactory alternative. The British constitution allows even a minority government to do a lot, one reason why so many people were worried about a Corbyn minority government.

So if the election is primarily a choice about prime minister, the question inevitably arises for Lib Dems as to whose side they are on. It is usually a very hard question to answer, as to take sides alienates a large part of the party’s support, while not taking sides means denying voters a say in that critical question. It presented an insuperable obstacle for the party in this election, since both prime ministerial choices were highly alienating, and it mattered a lot to people how that was going to be resolved. At first the party tried to dodge the question by suggesting that they themselves would be the largest party after the election. But the party was over-stretched targeting 80 seats, never mind the 250 or so which was the practical minimum for that to be realistic. And yet the other answer, “neither”, was very unappealing as it suggested yet more parliamentary drift in the event of a hung parliament and perhaps a further election not long after.

And the electoral system is here to stay. The public is far from convinced that it lies at the root of the country’s political difficulties and needs changing. And they are not wrong about that. Proportional systems bring their own problems, of a sort that the public may not have much patience for, at UK level anyway (local and devolved government is another matter). It is just possible that Labour may take a more pluralistic approach to politics and put electoral reform into their manifesto. But it goes against their whole organisational raison-d’etre – it would be a promise they would fail to keep, like the Canadian Liberals. And the most sensible electoral reform, the Alternative Vote, has been ruled out by the 2011 referendum on it – though in the long run even this would probably not have helped the party by much.

Which brings me to a second strategic problem: a core vote is not enough. Successful parties under our electoral system are broad coalitions of political activists, seeking the votes of even broader coalitions of voters. The Conservatives embrace social conservatives and free-market liberals, and successfully attract working class voters in spite of being an overwhelmingly middle class enterprise. Within the Lib Dems much thought has been given to developing the party’s “core vote”: a subsection of the electorate that so identify with the party’s values that they will vote for the party whatever. It is argued that under previous leaders the party fudged its values in order to attract as wide a spectrum of voters as possible, which in turn meant they were impossible to hold onto when the going got rough. There is plenty of truth in this. The party does have clear values, which could be used as a base for a significant core vote. The party’s strong identification with the Remain cause in recent years was meant to demonstrate this. Membership of the EU, and questioning the referendum result, were policies rather than values, of course – but people with values show a strong commitment to key policies rather than blowing with the wind.

But the party overdid this. I have already written about the Revoke policy on the EU, which was designed to appeal to core voters, but which also had the effect of insulting almost everybody else. The party also promoted its commitment to transgender rights; this might be a good case study for what core liberalism means, but sceptics don’t just include the usual social conservatives. Meanwhile the party’s most important non-EU policy commitment, on child care, which managed to persuade the Resolution Foundation that the party cared more about child poverty than Labour did, managed to get buried, in spite of potential for broad appeal. The strategy should be to build a core vote outside election time, and broader coalitions during elections. And annoying large sections of the electorate should be avoided if possible – a mistake Labour also made. This should be perfectly feasible for liberals. They may be few people’s first choice but they are many people’s second choice: that is good for coalitions. Meanwhile the Lib Dem core vote looks increasingly like an upper middle class ghetto.

So what are the implications? To break the system the party has to do one of two things. It could align itself with one or other of the main parties and gradually subsume it by good organisation and presenting a more appealing vision to the public. Labour did this to the Liberals in the 1920s and 1930s, capitalising on Liberal divisions, while making a more appealing offer to working class voters. The other strategy is to knock one of the other parties into third place in a single, spectacular blow. This is was what Emanuel Macron did in France, going one better and achieving first place in one go. The party can maybe build a bridgehead of 50 seats or so as an interim while dodging the hung parliament bullet. Doing either of these things is more than hard: it depends both on mistakes made by the other parties, and luck.

Or, alternatively, the party can content itself with being a junior partner in a “progressive” coalition, by building up areas of geographical strength. This is harder than it was in the early 2000s, when the party had a base in large parts of South West England and Cornwall, which has now disappeared. It also reduces the party’s appeal to former Conservative voters.

And, of course, the party needs to work out how to broaden its appeal. It needs to appeal across the social spectrum, including to people who voted Leave in the referendum. These voters need not comprise part of a loyal core, but they should not find the idea of voting for the party toxic, as so many do now. The party’s new policy towards Europe is going to have to strike a careful balance – it needs to continue to attract the fanatics while not putting off people who want to move on. That probably means not talking about the issue too much, and developing other signature policies to divert attention. But what?

Of course it is not just a question of developing policies. it also needs to develop an emotional narrative. I suspect that harking back to a golden age when politics was more respectful and public servants more competent and less politicised, and the economy flourished as part of the EU. Largely bunkum perhaps, but so is the nostalgic appeal promoted by the other parties. The party has to get beyond dry intellectualism.

All this is hard, but there is another awkward point. What the party does depends on what Labour and the Conservatives do. If Labour turns over a new leaf, embracing liberal values as well has re-learning how to appeal to lower middle class and working class voters, then the Lib Dems will struggle. But if Labour divisions worsen, that is another matter.

Or, of course, we can give up. We can quietly go back to the Labour and Conservative parties hoping to change them from within, or just watch from the sidelines. And yet the party’s remarkable success in 2019, and being the only nationwide party to substantially increase its vote in December, point in a different direction. Both the other parties have become hostile to liberals. We have to continue the fight.

Meanwhile, it is probably more helpful to cast a close eye on the Conservative and Labour Parties to gain an idea of how the country’s politics could and should develop.

What happened to the Liberal Democrats?

A week on from Britain’s General Election and I’m still struggling to absorb its implications. The scale of the Conservative victory still hasn’t sunk in: in terms of the stages of grief I haven’t got beyond denial. So I don’t have much useful to say on them yet. Besides, the most important thing in British politics will be that party’s internal tensions as it tries to live up to the expectations it has set, and it is far too early to get a clear sight of these. So far as the next most important thing in British politics, the future of the Labour Party, I’m still in the anger phase of grief. This is partly a reflection of the way that party behaved towards mine (the Liberal Democrats), but also a sort of displacement activity to divert me from thinking about the implications for the Lib Dems. I need to calm down a bit before offering my thoughts on Labour.

What I want to do first is comment on the predicament of the Lib Dems. For them I am through denial and anger, and in desperate negotiation before depression inevitably strikes. Let me share some of that negotiation.

The Lib Dems have dropped out of comment on mainstream media, after some rather superficial analysis on Jo Swinson’s lack of popularity and the Revoke policy. This is right; Labour’s troubles are much more entertaining and important to the general public. Within the party comment is largely of two types: anger at practically every decision the leadership took since the party’s conference in September, and apologetics from those close to the establishment, rehashing the data that was behind those decisions. Both lines are highly unsatisfactory.

Firstly, what happened? This is my personal impression and doubtless can be disputed or improved on. In September the party was on the crest of a wave. It was riding (relatively) high in the opinion polls, and succeeded in drawing in defectors from both Labour and the Conservatives. It was the probably the most popular party amongst Remain supporters, and local polls showed it doing well in Remain areas. Winning forty seats was at the conservative end of projections: 100 or more looked possible. The newly elected leader, Jo Swinson, decided to go for broke to capitalise on this fleeting moment.

There were reasons to hope that the party could maintain its momentum. It was attracting some big donors, and the other parties had used up a large part of their national spending limits. The party would go into a quick election without its usual relative disadvantage in financial firepower, at least when it came to the national campaign (sustaining that across enough constituencies was more of a problem). In Jo the party had fresh-looking front person, who, along with the highly presentable converts from other parties, such as Luciana Berger, Chuka Umuna and Sarah Wollaston, could present the party as something new. There was a lot of evidence to show that voters were fed up with the other main parties.

One step the party chose to take was to adopt the infamous Revoke policy: that the party would simply cancel Brexit in the unlikely event that it won a majority. At the time this looked very popular amongst Remain voters, and it seemed to show up Labour in particular as ditherers on the biggest political topic of the day. A further step was establishing a highly ambitious set of (about) 80 target seats. These included seats like mine (Battersea) where the party polled a mere 7% in 2017. Local polling, membership recruitment and doorstep campaigning showed the party to be popular in these seats, and they would have been winnable if the campaign could somehow be restricted to a few days. The leadership has been criticised for its apparently delusional ambition. But if the party is going to break into the British political big time it has to be ambitious and make the most of its opportunities.

But the party badly underestimated Labour. At first Labour’s conference seemed to underline its muddle and confusion over Brexit, but in the end it committed to a further referendum. This was good enough to shore up the party’s position amongst Remain voters. There was a nonsense in Labour’s Brexit policy, which was the promised renegotiation of Brexit terms, but in the end this proved easier to explain than the Lib Dems’ view that it supported both revoking Brexit straightaway and a further referendum. Remain voters wanted a referendum and didn’t care about the renegotiation. Labour’s campaigning machine then swung into action. They moved behind a “Stop Boris” meme amongst Remain supporters, and promoted “tactical voting” hard. This used the 2017 election result as its base, in preference to more recent polling, which meant that “vote tactically” overwhelmingly meant “vote Labour”, with a few token gestures to Lib Dems. The attack hit home, as we found with even members persistently asking why our candidate wasn’t standing down and promoting Labour, as the tactical sites recommended. National polls showed Labour’s vote rising at the Lib Dem expense.

And with that the whole Lib Dem campaign started to unravel, though whether it did Labour any good is a question for another day. A vicious circle was set in motion. The loss in poll ratings punctured the party’s momentum. It may well have been led in seats not targeted by the Lib Dems, but those targets needed national momentum to succeed, and in the end the squeeze took hold in most of these too. Meanwhile Labour’s rise, and the clamour for a Labour-led government within a hung parliament, raised Tory voters’ fears about voting for the Lib Dems. It wasn’t just that the Labour leadership was toxic to these voters, but they were not fans of a hung parliament either. Many Remainers voted Tory.

This sagging performance in turn put the Lib Dem leadership on the defensive. In the Question Time session Jo was put under constant pressure (not helped by the fact that, unlike the other three party leaders, the BBC did not pick a block of her party’s supporters to put in the audience), and this set the trend. The Revoke policy was painted as undemocratic, raising the passions of Leave supporters and the reservations of Remain ones. And that wasn’t all: the party’s role in the coalition government of 2020 came under scrutiny. Jo’s leadership ratings sagged, and it became fashionable to criticise her: she was too stiff and bossy, it was said (though quite why people didn’t prefer that to a lying cad or a bumbling do-gooder with scary friends these critics did not attempt to explain). It is very hard to disentangle cause and effect here: it is much easier to pick holes in a leader if their party appears to be sinking, than one whose party is doing well. Still a more skilled or experienced performer than Jo, together with a little luck, might have been able to limit the rot. It is not clear that her leadership rival Ed Davey would have fared better. He wouldn’t have been as stiff, and would have been better at handling questions, but he would not have presented as clear a break from the past, and he has his own weak spots. The media were never going to give a Lib Dem leader much space, and they didn’t. The lowlight for me was the BBC Today programme spending so much of its interview of her in the last week questioning her on transgender rights. Pressuring her on Brexit and Revoke, and on the party’s record on coalition was fair game, but trans rights had very little to do with how people were going to vote, and only served to deny airtime to a party that was already not getting very much. Still, all parties bitterly complained about their media treatment, and politicians complaining about media coverage is, as somebody put it, like sailors complaining about rough seas.

The party was forced into an undignified retreat. Battersea was abruptly dropped as a target as a relentless Labour machine pushed the Lib Dems back into their box. In London Labour, who had a good campaign, quickly switched to seats the Lib Dems might take off the Conservatives (such as Wimbledon and the Cities) in order to ensure that the Tories were safe there and that the Lib Dems did not gain a bridgehead (or, at any rate that’s what people in those seats say).

What to say about this sorry story? For all the clever types pointing to poll evidence, I continue to maintain that the Revoke policy was a serious error. The party wasn’t trying to attract Leave voters but it didn’t have to insult them; it took the pressure off Labour’s Brexit policy rather than adding to it; it made the party look arrogant, which then bounced off onto thinking its leader was arrogant. The evidence for this is all anecdotal, admittedly, but the rising dissatisfaction levels the party and its leader attracted from the public need to be explained.

I think this points to a wider strategic problem. Like Labour the Lib Dems focused on gathering up core supporters: Remainers in its case. Some wore unpopularity amongst Leave supporters as a badge of honour. The data analysis supporting the party’s decisions seems to take this as a given. And yet hostility, even amongst people who were never going to vote for the party, was not ultimately helpful, especially from a party that likes to present itself as one that bridges differences. It was a retreat into a middle class ghetto. All seven of the seats the party won in England were in the top quartile of affluence. This contrasts starkly with both the other main parties, who showed an ability to harvest votes from right across the social spectrum.

But for all the tactical mistakes, what the election demonstrated above all is just how difficult it is for the party to break out of the stranglehold the country’s electoral system. I will reflect more on that, and the future of the party, next time.

The morning after

Now that Britain’s general election is over I can resume my blog. I was too close to the heart of what could have been an important Lib Dem campaign to risk saying something that could be misused out of context, as well as not having the time. That isn’t a decision I regret, but I’m relieved that I can now be allowed to stand back from things a bit. So here are my first thoughts on the campaign and its result.

The Conservatives now have their biggest election victory since 1987. This gives them a clear mandate to complete Brexit as soon as they can, but there is plenty of trouble ahead. The party’s success derives from two things. First it took the battle to Labour’s heartlands in the Midlands, North England and Wales and won seats there in unthinkable numbers. These areas voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, and Labour’s support for a further referendum was the Tory battering ram. But I suspect they exploited a deeper disenchantment with Labour than Brexit, and demographic changes as old industries such as mining and manufacturing fade into memory. Second the Conservatives convinced most of their former supporters who voted Remain to stay with the party, in spite of its robust stance on Brexit and much else. Here they exploited a weariness with Brexit, and fear both of Labour and a hung parliament. Both of these successes were neatly encompassed by party’s slogan of “Get Brexit Done”.

Labour suffered its worst result since before the Second World War in seats won (1983 was worse for share of the vote). They had no answer to the Tory assault. The party mounted an effective ground operation, at least in London. Here they swept up a lot of Remain voters who had preferred the Lib Dems, skilfully exploiting the various tactical voting websites, and downplaying doubts about the party’s leader and manifesto (and doubtless helping to shore up the Tory vote as well). This ground game turned what might have been a catastrophe into a mere disaster. The far left are blaming the whole disaster on Brexit and on a vicious media campaign against its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But the party’s problems go much deeper. It went to the country with radical manifesto and a narrative that the country was yearning for fundamental change. This was enough to fire up an army of activists, and to secure its support in many traditional working class areas, such as the ethnically diverse council estates in London, which remained solidly behind the party. But it left most people at best unimpressed. Many Labour policies were popular, such as nationalising the railways, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts. It sounded too much like presents for everybody and somebody else pays. For me the party’s policies and leadership deserved to be much more unpopular than they were. Labour succeeded in crushing rival opposition parties outside Scotland, so its radicals doubtless think they will have more luck when the Conservatives get bogged down, as they inevitably will, without having to rethink their policy platform and narrative. But the real problem is that the party insists on trying to win by persuading a minority of people to support it, while rejecting everybody else as beyond the pale. They have no idea how to take the fight to the enemy heartlands in the way that Boris Johnson’s Tories have, and the party used under Tony Blair. Labour’s tribalism is leading it up a blind alley.

For the Lib Dems the result is just as disastrous, and poses equally tough questions. They started the campaign with high hopes of winning more than 40 seats, but steadily lost support as the campaign progressed, so that they ended up with just eleven, and the humiliation of Jo Swinson, the leader, losing her Scottish seat. In understanding this it is hard to disentangle the judgemental mistakes from the hindsight. Jo did not go down well with sceptical voters, and was repeatedly put on the defensive in radio and television interviews. But surely some of this is a reflection of the party’s broader weakness: their opponents and the media will always find something to put the party leader down with. In 2017 it was gay rights; this year if it hadn’t been the party’s Revoke policy on Brexit, it would have been “austerity” in the coalition years, or as emerged later in the campaign, transgender rights. Nobody was going to let the party explain its ideas on child poverty, for example, where the independent Resolution Foundation found its manifesto better than Labour’s. Still, I think the Revoke policy was an unforced error; it put a large number of people off, and was an easy way of soaking up valuable airtime.

But the Lib Dem problem goes much deeper. There is a paradox: the more the other parties go to extremes, the more the appeal of the party rises, and yet the harder it is to turn this into electoral success, as the fear factor takes over. People simply ask: “Whose side are you on?”. The party tried to say neither, and that their objective was to lead the next government, and not prop one of the other parties up. But that sounded impossibly hubristic, and the party had to drop it. And that simply fed the Labour tactical vote onslaught, and the Tory appeal to stop a hung parliament. The party increased its share of the vote, and the number of second places it holds. This could be a platform to take over from one of the the other parties in the distant future, but it is hard to see how the party can avoid the long, hard squeeze in the next election, which could now be five years away.

I have almost nothing to say on the election’s other winners, the Scottish Nationalist Party, as I am simply too far away from that country to say anything useful for now. However with Labour down to a single seat in Scotland again, it shows how that party’s London bias is leading to a weak message north of the border. I am disappointed that the Lib Dems did not do better, given its Scottish leader, though it least it picked up a seat to compensate for losing Jo’s, and the party fared better than the other UK-wide ones. Apparently the fact that Jo spent much of her time away from her seat in UK business didn’t help.

I will have much more to say on the lessons and impact of the election, after I have had more time to absorb what has happened and reflect. On the one hand I am disgusted that such an unprincipled leader as Boris Johnson has won so big, and I am disappointed that so many very able Lib Dem candidates lost out. On the other hand I am relieved that we aren’t relying on Mr Corbyn to navigate the country through a hung parliament. Unlike many of my Lib Dem friends, this election to me was about a lot more than Brexit, and I am glad that Mr Corbyn and his hard-left clique have done so badly. I will explain why in future posts.

And into the general election

MPs here in Britain have just agreed a General Election on 12 December. I will be much more closely involved in this election than normal, as I am agent for the Liberal Democrats in Battersea, a seat that has become highly winnable for the party. Since I do not use this blog to spout party propaganda, it will be very hard for me to post much of interest on this blog in the meantime. So there will be a period of silence.

Is an election the right thing? The government does not have a majority and it is hard to see it getting significant legislation through. This is one way of trying to resolve that, though it may not. Each party has approached the election decision with their short term advantage primarily in mind (and all four main parties played a role). There are two main reasons not to, apart from the inconvenience of the time of year. On the government side many reckoned it was feasible to push through Brexit legislation, now that many Labour MPs are softening, and this would turn an election into a victory parade. On the opposition side there was a chance that this legislation might be changed to allow a further Brexit referendum, which many feel would be desirable before an election. Depending on which of these arguments you accept or reject, the election makes Brexit more or less likely to go through. I have no opinion on this.

All three main parties in England (Scottish politics is very different, and I am much less informed; Wales follows broadly similar trends to England) plan to put Brexit at the centre of their campaigns, alongside other arguments, depending on who they are talking to. The Conservatives will say “Get Brexit Done” to Brexit supporters and “Stop Corbyn” to others. Labour will say “Labour is the only Remain option” to Remain supporters, as our local Labour MP is telling us here in Battersea, and “reject Austerity” to others. The Lib Dems will also lay claim to Remain supporters, with its less equivocal stance, while presenting themselves as the only sensible party left now that Labour and the Conservatives have veered off to idealistic extremes.

How will it play out? Many voters are utterly disgusted with both Labour and Tory leaderships, and will be tempted vote Lib Dem. That is why the party is, astonishingly, in contention in places like Battersea, after generations in the desert. Will they be ground down by a relentless focus on “the two main parties” in the media, as happened at the last election, in 2017? The party starts in a much stronger position, in polling, money and organisational strength than in 2017, or 2015, come to that, so it should do better. But it seeks a radical lift-off in its performance. That is harder. There is evidence that Labour have been making some headway with their pro-Remain message since the party conferences, eating into Lib Dem support. That will come at a cost, though, as anti-Brexit parties eat into Labour support, for which there is also evidence.

The critical factor will be how the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his team goes down with the public. His supporters point to a spectacular performance in 2017 once he hit the campaign trail. But that was in a very different situation. There are problems with Labour’s stance on Brexit if you start to press it, especially around their idea of renegotiating the exit deal, and then recommending its rejection in a referendum. But since the Lib Dems adopted their revoke without referendum policy (albeit only if they are in majority), Labour can present their policy as more moderate and democratic. I actually find Labour spokesmen a bit clearer on the details of their Brexit policy than Lib Dem ones.

But the main question about Labour is over the rest of their policy. Their manifesto is sure to be radical, though how many of the party’s preferred policies (like taking over private schools) make it there is uncertain. Personally I think current Labour policy is horrific, full of the worst ideas from the left. Their plans to nationalise railways and other industries, and roll back public sector outsourcing look like a sop to unions that will get bogged down very quickly. The idea of a “National Education Service” is doubtless meant to evince the warm glow that the National Health Service supposedly does, but in me it evokes the worst aspects of the NHS, politicisation, leaden management and useless user interfaces, for example, and not the good bits. And on top of that Labour’s leadership looks inexperienced on not up to executing such a radical platform successfully. If there were no Lib Dem option it I would sooner support the Conservatives, notwithstanding Brexit. But I am a creature of my class and age (I remember the 1970s); others could react very differently.

And what of the Conservatives’ non-Brexit stance? This mainly seems to be based on scaring people about Labour policies, but they are also trying to reassure people that they will provide more funding for popular public services, such as the police, the NHS and education. Clearly things have moved on from the period of uber-austerity from 2015 to 2018, but it is hard to trust them. That may not matter too much as the much of the public distrusts liberal public spending, unless it benefits them personally, which it mostly doesn’t. Arguments about Keynesian economic stimulus benefiting all tend not to cut ice, rightly or wrongly.

How will The Brexit Party do? TBP was rampant in the European elections in May, and present a tempting proposition to angry Brexiteers, of whom there are many. The usual view is that they will spit the anti-Brexit vote and impede the Conservatives. But the new Tory leadership under Boris Johnson, has done much to contain that threat. The fact that Mr Johnson has not kept his promise to implement Brexit on 31 October “do or die” may not help TBP as much as many thought. I expect few people believed him in the first place, and there are ready scapegoats. TBP might prove just as much a problem for Labour, and their very public leaning towards opposing Brexit.

And the Greens? They may benefit from an electoral pact with the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru, but it is hard to see them having a major impact. Labour has pretty much shot their fox. Environmental issues certainly have more traction than they used to, but politicians from all parties have noticed. Labour in particular are trying hard to scoop up the angry young environmentalists.

It is all very hard to predict. If Labour start to do well, Tory scare tactics will gain traction and the Lib Dems will suffer. If Labour get stuck, the reverse could happen. Most people think that the SNP will do well in Scotland at the expense of both Conservatives and Labour, though the Lib Dems could make some limited progress there. It will be interesting to see how well the Democratic Unionist Party will do in Northern Ireland, after their very prominent role in this parliament. The betting markets show a Conservative victory and a hung parliament as nearly equally probable at about 45%, with the former having an edge. I don’t disagree.

The Brexit endgame: the two mostly likely outcomes for 31 October

Britain is due to leave the European Union on 31 October, but there is no agreed deal about how this is to happen. Nevertheless, the government insists that it will happen on that date come what may. We’ve been here before, when when Britain was due to leave on 29 March, only for it to collapse at the last minute. What will happen this time?

The first question is whether the UK can get a deal in time. Government supporters say that the EU will buckle at the last minute because the consequences of leaving without a deal would be so dire for them. The one thing that could spoil this, according to this narrative, is if the EU are convinced that the UK is so scared of a no-deal itself that it would ask for an extension. This the EU would accept because secretly they want Britain to stay in, and the constant game of deferral is the only way to keep this possibility in play, while the pro-EU forces gather strength in the UK.

According to this version, the Benn Act, which would force the government to ask for an extension if a deal is not forthcoming by 19th October, is a shot in the foot, which guarantees that the EU will call the government’s bluff. They hint that there is a way around it. What might this be? Perhaps they can persuade one of the EU awkward squad, like Hungary, to veto an extension. But the Hungarian government picks its fights with the EU carefully and it isn’t clear what the upside for them would be. But, then again, if there was no clear rationale for an extension, such as waiting for an election or a referendum, they might be pushing at an open door. Other EU countries are getting fed up with the charade and they might think that a no-deal will work to their advantage; the real hurt will be concentrated in only a few countries.

But could the EU offer Britain anything its government and parliament could accept? The conventional wisdom is that if the EU gave way on the Irish backstop, then a parliamentary majority could be found. The government also wants to point the political declaration part of the deal towards a Canada-style free trade deal, rather than the closer relationship that its predecessor under Theresa May had advocated. Officially the EU has no grounds to oppose this, but they may secretly worry that this would undermine the Single Market in the continuing EU, given the UK’s proximity compared to Canada. Still, that issue can be dealt with later. It is the backstop that is the crunch issue for now.

Here there is a gulf in the way the two sides look at this, or at any rate between how the UK and Irish governments do. On the British side, the EU referendum applies to Northern Ireland by virtue of its membership of the UK. They also take the view that being a member of a customs union is an unacceptable loss of sovereignty, and that special treatment for the province would undermine the integrity of the UK. So the Irish government has just got to lump it; they simply have to accept the Will of the People. The Irish view this differently. To them the North never assented to Brexit, and would almost certainly be happy with some sort of fudge that created a customs border in the Irish Sea. The British government is simply behaving like a colonial occupier in forcing this unwanted policy on an unwilling province, with only the support of hated colonial hardcore, represented by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). They are sick that Brexit has undermined the Northern Ireland peace settlement, as this was based largely on the ambiguity that arose from the membership of the EU of both nations. This narrative goes to the heart of Ireland’s idea of itself, and they might well be prepared to accept the pain of no-deal rather than buckle to the demands of what they see as British arrogance, aided and abetted by the most toxic politicians on the island. With such a gulf in political perceptions it is hard to see how a deal can be reached that will get through the British parliament, as the Irish government has an effective veto.

So, though doubtless the EU is more flexible than it lets on,
getting a deal that sticks looks too big an ask. The next question is whether
the result will be a further delay or a crash-out. The surest way of securing a
delay is for Boris Johnson’s administration to be turfed out and some form of
short-term government replace it, pending a general election. But there is a
big problem with this. While there is a clear parliamentary majority against a
no-deal, this is an awkward coalition between those that want Brexit to happen
with a deal, and those who don’t want Brexit to happen at all, subject to a
referendum. That makes it hard for such a temporary government to agree on
anything useful. It surely could not take forward a referendum before any
election. And there is a further problem, who would lead it? The Leader of the
Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn has, justifiably or not, become a toxic figure in British
politics, and it is highly unlikely that he can command a parliamentary majority
even for a short-term government. This is regardless of how the growing number
of Liberal Democrat MPs view the matter, but it would be fatal for that party
to lend him their support. And yet so far Mr Corbyn insists that it is him or
nobody, based on a not dissimilar political calculation.

So if Mr Johnson cannot be ejected from office, might he ask for a delay, as required by the Benn Act, and go for an immediate general election? This is a real possibility. The conventional wisdom is that if he did so he would be fatally open to attack by The Brexit Party (TBP), who were so devastatingly effective as gathering Tory voters in the May European elections. But I suspect the government is slowly winning a battle of attrition with TBP, and that party could pose a greater threat to Labour, and help the Tories in Labour seats. The will be able to blame the “remoaners” – whom they will have purged from their own party.

And so this boils down to what might happen in a general
election, as this will lie behind all the political calculations. As things
stand things are looking up for the Conservatives. Labour is losing traction,
partly because of the awkwardness of its Brexit policy, and partly because Mr
Corbyn has such a low standing with the public. The Liberal Democrats are doing
well, and this could cost the Conservatives a lot of seats, and the SNP are set
to reverse the Conservative revival in Scotland, but the Tories could do well
enough elsewhere to make up for this.

But two questions hang over this analysis. How might a no-deal Brexit alter things? The conventional wisdom is that it would puncture TBP overnight, and that is probably right. But would the Lib Dems benefit from a Remainer backlash, or would they lose out, like TBP, because of the failure of their signature policy, to stop Brexit? On both counts this could work for Labour. The second question is whether Labour’s socialist policies and railing against “Austerity” will gain the party traction once the election gets underway, as it apparently did in 2017. Personally I don’t think it will, but that is not based on any clear evidence. The Labour leadership presumably take a very different view; but I suspect the Tory leadership think that the Labour manifesto will be another suicide note, like its 1983 manifesto, according to legend (and which accords with my memory of 1983). That led to a Tory super-majority.

That leaves two main possibilities. That the government succeeds in engineering a crash out on 31 October. How quickly this will be followed by an election is hard to say, just as what the short term impact of a crash out would be. The other is that the government gets another deferral and goes to the country straightaway. The result of that will either be a Tory majority or yet another hung parliament.

So the anticlimax of 29 March looks very unlikely. One way or another the country is heading for a momentous reckoning.