Tag Archives: Conservatives

The political isolation of Britain’s working class: liberals should reach out

Conservative Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget last week, his first without the need to negotiate with the Liberal Democrats, was widely hailed as a feat of political brilliance. It has put the opposition Labour Party into disarray. At its centre was a direct attack on Britain’s working poor. Nothing could demonstrate that group’s political weakness better.

Part of the political acuity was the spread of confusion over where the budget pain was to be felt. Mr Osborne, and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, had earlier set out their intention of wooing working class voters to their party. Huge cuts to tax credits, the Budget’s centrepiece, were camouflaged by rises to the minimum wage, to be renamed “living wage”, by more than even Labour had been proposing before the election.

Britain’s tax credit system was implemented by Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown. It is designed to top up the wages of those not earning enough to meet basic needs, in particular the costs of bringing up children.  Various arguments were used to justify this. It was said that companies were paying workers less because they were anticipating the effect of tax credits. The system was created by Labour so as to create a bank of dependent voters. Aspersions were cast on claimants as being shirkers, or feckless, especially poorer people who dare to have larger families (one proposal is to stop support for children after the second). It would be better to pay people more, and to tax them less, than to hand out state aid.

None of this really bears up to scrutiny. The minimum wage and higher tax thresholds are pinpricks on the wider problem for low pay. There was no sign that the public sector, for example, was going to be any more generous in its treatment of lower paid workers, many of which it pays for, directly or indirectly (through outsourcing contracts). Academic research does not support the idea that tax credits lead to lower pay – or at least, not by much. Claimants for tax credits are already working; they are very clearly not part of the army of shirkers, who, so far as they actually exist, claim direct state benefits. With an ageing population it is far from clear that the country needs fewer children with working parents – and poverty can adversely affect the progress of those children, reducing their chances of playing a full and active part in the economy.

This was nicely illustrated the Economist’s Bagehot column this week. He (Jeremy Cliffe) visited a local estate in south London (not all that far from where I live, as it happens), and talked to some of Mr Osborne’s proposed victims. He found a number of working women, with a diverse range of heritages, facing up to a difficult predicament with dignity. At the school where I am governor, such families demand increasing levels of support if their children are to keep pace with those from more fortunate families. We are lucky that the proportion of such families is manageable: but their needs will grow; our funding will not.

What our society is confronting is one of the most important issues it faces. It is the disappearance of mid-level blue and white collar jobs, and their replacement by less secure and less well-paid ones. These new jobs are overwhelmingly in service industries – carers, cleaners, call centre operatives, security guards, and so on.  This change is overwhelmingly due to new technology – but it has been helped along the way by globalisation. These new jobs often do not pay enough to allow their workers to fully participate in society – especially if they have children.

But it is not at all clear what the solution is. Two traditional answers do not look promising. The first is to improve productivity. And yet in these jobs it hard to see how this can be done without increasing general alienation. In any economy some jobs lend themselves to advances in productivity (think factories) and other don’t (think hairdressers). As the former become more productive, the proportion of workers in the second group increases. This is a phenomenon known as “Baumol’s disease” by economists – and it is a large part of what is going on here. The economy is stratifying between a small number of highly productive jobs, and a large number of relatively unproductive ones.  The former can lift up general levels of pay for everybody – but only so far. Improving productivity may simply help an elite of better off workers, without doing much for everybody else.

The second traditional answer is to increase job protection to improve the bargaining power of those in poorly paid jobs. This is the route favoured in such countries as France. It tends to lead to either or both of two things: higher unemployment or a growing army of temporary workers with fewer rights.

We are left with three routes that look inadequate, but must still be pursued. The first is redistribution through tax, benefits and freely available public services. Our tax credit system is a key element of this. The fact that its cost has escalated well beyond the scale originally envisaged simply shows that the problem it is trying to fix has grown. The answer is as surely to be higher taxes and not reduced benefits. The second route is universal education, and initiatives to ensure that children from poorer backgrounds get more support. This gives more people access to better paid jobs, and makes the job market less easy to stratify. Progress has been made on this, but it remains under pressure from lack of finance. The reduction of tax credits associated with children will be a step in the wrong direction.

And third is the strengthening of local communities and local economies. This may not make the economy much more productive in the traditional economic sense of creating more goods and services to consume, but it serves to humanise society and to tackle the exclusion that is the biggest cost of poverty. Tax credits have no role to play in this. They are a giant, soulless centralised system controlled by rules made by bureaucrats and politicians far, far away. They only help by improving incentives to work, and participate in communities that way, rather than dependency on straight benefits – which is corrosive of communities. But nothing the current government is doing, or the political elite is thinking about, is advancing this third, important approach. It does not follow from grand initiatives that make big political careers.

And the sad thing is to see how politically marginalised the modern working class has become. Our old picture is of white men, working in factories and belonging to unions. But this strata of working class is disappearing. Instead we have a growing army of male and female workers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They are not unionised, and split into multiple communities. They often do not vote. The Labour Party, the traditional sponsors of the working classes, is now more interested in chasing their more engaged and better off cousins in what is left of the traditional working classes and in the middle classes (“Middle England” as I have called it). Middle England is not very sympathetic to the plight of the new working class. This has weakened the party’s opposition to Mr Osborne’s budget – though thankfully three of the four prospective leaders see that their stop-gap leader Harriet Harman has gone too far in suggesting that Labour will not oppose the cuts to tax credits.

Liberals, I believe, must stand firm behind tax credits, accepting tax rises to support them if need be. We should also support education policies to ensure the full participation of children from poorer families. But the real hope lies in reinvigorating local communities. We should remember that this is not just a middle class thing. The Liberal Democrats in particular have been forced back into a middle class ghetto, and I suspect that many find this a comfortable, if small, place to be. But the real need for liberal solutions is amongst the country’s new working class, and that is an important area for outreach, based on community politics.

 

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Will the Conservatives trip up?

In my survey of the changed political landscape after Britain’s General Election it is time to look at the unexpected winners of that election, the Conservatives. Just as a pall of doom hangs over the defeated Labour Party, and an even darker one over the Liberal Democrats, a bright glow surrounds the Conservatives, who now have an aura of invincibility, to judge by the commentary. We form our opinions in such ephemeral ways.

How well is this aura deserved? The Conservative majority is a narrow one. There is a huge gulf between them and the second-largest party, Labour, but if they lose thirty seats or so, a rainbow coalition of some sort could replace them, incorporating Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems. Perhaps sensing this, the Tory leader, David Cameron, is making a bid for working class voters, especially those in northern England, to consolidate his hold on what I have called Middle England. These are voters employed by the private sector who view left-wing rhetoric about extending the state with scepticism. This is backed up by the Chancellor George Osborne’s “northern powerhouse” idea of restoring the fortunes of northern England through devolution of power and infrastructure investment. If this plan succeeds Labour could retreat yet further. Labour is badly shaken and is uncertain about what to do next; it can’t simply rely on mid-term government unpopularity to sweep itself forward: it badly needs a better narrative of its own. Meanwhile the Lib Dems have now lost the huge benefit they had of incumbency, and may be laid low for a very long time.

A further factor is that the Conservatives could redraw constituency boundaries to secure themselves another dozen or so seats. There was a big kerfuffle about this in the last parliament – when the scheme was also part of a plan to reduce the size of the House of Commons – as it still should be, according to the Conservative manifesto. But British politics may be more fluid than the politicos think. Labour was supposed to have an inbuilt advantage on current electoral boundaries – but if I have understood the psephologist John Curtice correctly, this vanished in this year’s election. Since blatant, American-style gerrymandering cannot be done here, it could well be that redrawing the boundaries will have little actual effect on the balance, or even an adverse on on the Conservatives.

Still, I think three things could upset the Tory bandwagon. The first, and most obvious, is Europe. Membership of the European Union (i.e. opposition to it) has been something of an obsession for many Tory activists for a generation. And yet the leadership clearly favours staying in the EU, fearing the uncertainties that would follow a withdrawal. The party has been close to tearing itself apart, and divisions contributed to its fallow period from 1992 (shortly after their victory in that year’s general election) until Mr Cameron assumed the leadership in 2005. Mr Cameron’s strategy is to lance the boil with an in-out referendum in this parliament. Will this referendum allow the party to bury the hatchet? Or will it cause civil war and either a Eurosceptic coup, or mass desertions of rank and file and even MPs? Mr Cameron’s victory gives him a lot of political capital in the party, and his views on Europe probably match those of Middle England very well. He may yet pull this off.

Secondly there is the economy. It was economic policy that did for John Major’s Tories, when he was forced into a humiliating U-turn in September 1992 on the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Divisions on Europe, and a revived Labour Party under Tony Blair simply finished things off. The British economy is not as strong as the government claims. It is too dependent on private sector debt and consumption, resulting in a substantial current account deficit. Moreover the standard econometric models, still used by almost everybody, including the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), do not account for many of the headwinds a modern developed economy now faces. The government has no answer to weak productivity, which underlies Britain’s mediocre economic performance and the failure of wages to advance. The fact is that economic performance is simply not in any government’s gift, and the outlook is cloudy.

Not that any economic crisis, like that of 1992 looms. A new banking crisis cannot be ruled out, but the country does not look as vulnerable as it was in 2008. But slow growth, and even relapse to recession, is distinctly possible. This matters because the government’s financial plans depend on relatively optimistic predictions provided by those econometric models. If this is not forthcoming the government will either have to cut spending more deeply, or raise taxes, or borrow more. Each of these would be particularly difficult for a government that has set so much store by its “long-term economic plan”. It will be particularly poisonous if the government is forced to raise one of the tax trio of income tax, National Insurance or VAT – there was an election promise to enact a law against raising these. But what if the alternative was to renege on its funding pledge to the NHS? Such an invidious choice could well confront the government. And, of course, this problem could come together with the European one (as it did for John Major). If the country votes to leave the EU, or if it looks as if this is a strong possibility, then the adverse effects on the economy, in the short term at least, could be severe.

The third threat to the Conservatives is more speculative. It is that the Tories are very old-politics when a sea-change could be coming. They favour minimal constitutional change – and such change as they do offer seems to be about handing more power to the executive. They look to older voters more than the young. They use classic old-style fear campaigns ruthlessly. This old, Westminster-centred politics was in bad odour before the election, and that the bad odour has gone away. Tory strength reflects their opponents’ weaknesses. Labour and the Lib Dems are just as tainted in electors’ eyes. Ukip’s foray into the politics old- fogeydom disqualifies them in the eyes of many. The Greens’ fantastical economics and obsession with abstract nouns (austerity, inequality, neoliberalism, etc) limits their appeal. Perhaps this general negativity reflects the national mood well, but the party should take heed of what happened to Labour in Scotland. The SNP’s success is not jut based on a nasty, narrow nationalism, though that is part of their formula. It also draws strength from an inclusive, bottom-up politics, that is not so heavily managed by spin-doctors and narrow calculations of electoral advantage. They have managed to ignite hope – and in the face of hope the old-politics world had no answer.

Can the politics of hope be ignited in England? It should not be ruled out. Perhaps a breakaway faction from Labour or the Conservatives can set it off it, much as the SDP did in 1981. Perhaps a future Labour leader will have the vision to be part of an electoral alliance including  the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru, and based political reform, including a federal constitution and proportional representation at its heart. Such a brave and unexpected move could capture voters’ imagination, especially if the Tory reputation for sound economic management is wearing thin.

It may well take another crushing defeat for Labour before they are ready to embrace such radical thinking. Whether the SNP might play ball I have no notion. But  these are strange political times and we must dare to think the unthinkable. There is no inevitability about another Conservative victory.

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Middle England speaks. The Left must move out of its dream world

After last week’s earthquake it is tempting firstly to debate party strategy for the Liberal Democrats, and then to gloat a bit over Labour’s ineptitude. But such an inward focus on the political left and centre-left is one of the reasons why these parties got into such trouble. I want to think about that key group of voters that I will call Middle England. These are the voters that plumped for the Conservatives, and won them the election.

What I will develop is a bit of an archetype. It is not based on scientific evidence – though anecdotal evidence from the campaign trail forms part of the picture. What I am creating therefore is a bit of a myth. But I think it will help to think about politics in a different way – and the validity of any new thinking that flows from it can then be tested to proper evidence in due course.

The Middle England voter is predominantly suburban and middle class, but includes much of  the established working class too – by which I do not mean those struggling on the margins of poverty and state benefits, which is what some seem to understand by the term “working class”. These voters exist in large stretches of Wales as well as England. I read that Scottish voters are much more similar to English ones than  is popularly realised – so similar voters must exist north of the border too in large numbers too. But their voting behaviour was different, and should be considered on a different occasion.

What do we know about such voters?

  1. The Tory brand is not toxic to them. This makes them stand apart from most of the urban middle classes with whom I associate, and the more tribal working classes. Middle England does not regard itself as dependent on the state, and its sense of wellbeing is affected by taxes. This gives the Conservatives an opening, and make Middle England voters particularly suspicious of parties that are profligate with state spending.
  2. But they are open to voting for other parties. This makes them a critical political group – they are swing voters. They voted for Tony Blair’s New Labour; large numbers voted Liberal Democrat between 1997 and 2010. Ukip has fished in these waters too. They like great British institutions like the NHS, state schools and the old age pension. They accept that they must pay taxes to fund these things. They are distrustful of the political and business elites.
  3. They mainly work in the private sector. This is perhaps the critical point, and one that separates them from the modern political class – who build their careers within, or on the margins of, government and the public sector. Middle England voters are  used to the rough world of competitive markets and to the disciplines that flow from it, such as constant performance appraisal and being forced to rethink the way you work. They face many insecurities, and their life depends on the health of the economy – but they do not think that these things depend on government spending and regulation, in the way that much of the political class seems to.

It would be easy to build up this characterisation further, and speculate on property ownership, newspaper readership and other things. But I think that this is enough for now.

What seems to have happened is this: Middle England largely backed Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1980s, but deserted her as her government seemed bent on taking apart precious British institutions. In 1992 they were persuaded to stick with the Conservatives under John Major, in a campaign with a striking similarity to this year’s. But Tony Blair offered them what they were looking for, and they switched en masse for his party in 1997. In many parts of the country they favoured the Lib Dems, as being a sensible party of the political centre. In 2010 Gordon Brown’s Labour lost them. The economic crash of 2008 swept away Labour’s reputation for economic competence and strong management of the state’s finances. And they were getting grumpy over the government’s tendency to nag and nanny them. But by and large they stuck with the Lib Dems. And Middle England does not appear to have been too upset with the coalition that followed – though doubts grew about the junior party.

This year the Conservatives secured the Middle England vote in a ruthless campaign that reached under the media’s radar. The Lib Dems were already weakened by the loss of votes to Labour (the party’s other key constituency of left wing sympathisers disillusioned with New Labour), and their seeming irrelevance in seats outside their areas of strength. Middle England voters in areas of Lib Dem strength were the main focus of the Conservative campaign. Their weapon was fear of a Labour government, particularly one dependent on the SNP – who were seen as being after English taxpayers’ money.

Labour played into Tory hands. They made no serious attempt to recover the Middle England vote. They didn’t think they needed it. Their appeal was to public sector dependants, younger idealists fired up by ideas of “social justice”, and poorer people in urban areas affected by benefit reforms (especially here in London). All they needed to do, they thought, was to hang on to their core support and sweep up defectors from the Lib Dems. Labour took some care not to appear profligate, and claimed that their plans could be financed by cheap borrowing and taxes on people too rich to be considered Middle England. They assumed that everybody knew that “austerity” had failed. But this sounded suspiciously like empty political words. It was particularly damaging when Ed Miliband refused to seriously criticise Labour’s previous economic record, notably on the Question Time TV show. It didn’t help Labour that the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon banged on about fighting austerity at every opportunity. “Austerity” is a bit of a political class jargon, but the public soon started to understand that it was synonymous with what they understood as prudent financial management.

Labour and the Lib Dems clearly also hoped that the Tories would be fatally wounded by the rise of Ukip. But where it mattered the same ruthless Tory campaign was able to limit the damage here. So the Tories swept away the Lib Dems and contained any Labour advance in England and Wales.

Now Labour and the Lib Dems must confront the damage done. They can’t rely on a Tory implosion over the next five years – though that is a possibility. Unless they can reduce the fears of Middle England neither party will win back power. Labour leadership candidates at least seem to understand this. But whether they can drag along their activists and trade union supporters in a single parliament remains open to question. I will return to the Labour predicament in a future blog.

The problem for the Lib Dems looks even worse. Their electoral strategy of local do-gooding and scooping up tactical votes  is incompatible with coalition government, and a core values appeal does not look able to secure anything like enough votes in enough constituencies. I will blog about that in future too.

But what we need to contemplate is a complete change to the political landscape. The idea of a natural “progressive” (or left-leaning) majority in England is well and truly dead. If you add Ukip’s vote to the Conservative one in England you get 55%.  To appeal to these voters you cannot throw public money at all your favourite causes,  bang on about about “social justice”, or whinge about austerity. The left has been living in a dream world for the last five years, and ignoring the worries of Middle England.

But all is not lost. The Conservatives won’t have it easy either. Their tendency to attack sacred British institutions remains. By all accounts many of their voters are reluctant ones. What politicians of the left must recognise is that this is the key electoral battleground – and not the politics of protest and chatter amongst people who share your own outlook. Long live democracy!

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Two-party politics is making a come-back even if people don’t want it.

There is now less than a week to go before Britain’s General Election (Thursday 7 May).The tension mounts amongst those that follow these things. So far the opinion polls swing this way and that, but on average remain nearly static. In the BBC Poll of Polls the parties haven’t wavered more than 1% from 34% each for Conservatives and Labour, 14% for Ukip, 8% for the Liberal Democrats and 5% for the Greens. But things could change significantly in the last week.

Much of the important movement remains invisible. It is in 100 or so competitive seats (I’m  excluding Scotland from my commentary for now). Significant movements here do not show in the polls. The Conservative and Labour parties, easily the best resourced, are cranking their campaigns up a gear. And their main targets are voters who are supporting the smaller parties: the Lib Dems, Ukip and the Greens, and no doubt Plaid Cymru too in Wales. In Labour-Tory marginals these voters are relentlessly being told that a vote for their preferred party is wasted: the real choice is between the big boys: and you don’t want the other side to win, do you? In seats where these other parties are in contention (and especially the 46 English and Welsh seats held by the Liberal Democrats) the effort is no less relentless. The Conservative leader led an attack on the Lib Dem seats in the southwest this week; Labour are no less determined to capture seats from the Lib Dems. The single Green seat of Brighton is under fierce attack by Labour. There is a massive battle in seats such as Thanet South where Ukip are in contention.

The smaller parties’ voters seem a softer target than trying to pick off voters directly from the other main party. We don’t know how successful this push by the big parties will be. But the Lib Dems are widely expected to lose over 30 of their 57 seats; the Greens could lose their only seat; Ukip might be left only with their by-election win of Clacton South. Of course I hope that the Lib Dems will do better than that (and more than hope – I will be stepping up my personal contribution to their efforts). But there is a strong prospect that the two big parties will win all but 25 of the 573 seats up for grabs in England and Wales. Two-party politics will have triumphed, even if the other parties win a more likely 35.

That is worth a little reflection. The conventional wisdom has been that two-party politics is over, The major parties cannot to get beyond 68% of the total vote between them (it used to be in the 90s). The BBC election logos show many colours; we had our first seven-way party leaders’ debate on the television. But once the results are in, you can bet that this will be tossed aside. There will be no real pressure for electoral reform, and the normal service will resume. Insiders in the main parties, the media and the civil service will heave a sigh of relief. The interval of coalition government involving the Liberal Democrats will be just a bad dream.

Except of course there is Scotland. This has been bit of a one-party system, with Labour dominating parliamentary seats. It still looks like being one-party system – but this time with the SNP in charge.  Their success may well mean that the two big parties still cannot dominate the UK parliament as they once did. But that only goes to emphasise just how much the country’s electoral system dominates politics. It is a winner-takes-all system, where the aim is to destroy your opponent, not to promote your positive values. The electoral reform proposed in 2011, the Alternative Vote, probably wouldn’t have changed this.

The parliament may be very unrepresentative. Many supporters of other parties may feel disenfranchised. But the people in the system just don’t care. All they think about is the potential prize of winning big and the vast bonanza of power and patronage that can bring. And to win big your party doesn’t have to be popular: you can do so if the other party is weak. And there always tempting fissures to exploit.

In the self-view of the main party supporters (including the SNP in this case), there is no particular problem about this. They haven’t really accepted the right of other parties to exist. In yesterday’s Question Time show the Labour leader Ed Miliband thought it was fine to suggest he would try to implement the Labour election manifesto unmodified whether or not he had a full electoral mandate. He seemed to have no notion that this might be undemocratic. When the Liberal Democrats joined the Conservatives in coalition this was seen as treachery by Labour supporters. The major parties would prefer a one-party state best of all – a situation they have sometimes achieved at local level. To them this would simply be a natural affirmation that they are in the right. They may concede that the world has to be divided into tribes of left and right but that is as far as they will go (though for the SNP haven’t got beyond the one-party state idea). Since these are the people who control what happens in our political system, is there any chance it will change? Should it change?

This will be among the big questions we English (and the Welsh) will need to face after the election. About a third of people vote for parties other than the big two. This would surely be more if the pressure to vote for one of the big two wasn’t so great. Politicians’ standing in the public eye is not high. This should be a good moment to promote electoral and other political reform.

It could happen: it did in New Zealand in 1996. But to do so the Labour and Conservative parties have to come under existential threat – the sort of threat of implosion that both have suffered in turn in Scotland. This is possible. If Labour end up in government, as still seems most likely, they will be riven by divisions and disappointed expectations. The Conservatives could be fatally divided by their attitudes to Europe.

Personally I think that the Liberal Democrats should put political reform at the heart of their agenda after the election. It used to under Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s, but subsequent leaders diluted it. They then need to assemble a coalition for reform, perhaps linking up with the Greens (though Ukip might be a step too far!) – and any splinters that the other parties might produce. But the battle will be an uphill one. The party has its own tendency to the winner-takes-all idea. But at 8% in the polls and its former electoral strategy in ruins, some fresh thinking is called for.

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Election issues: Scotland. Political chaos beckons. That could be a good thing.

I despair. My ambition was to do a weekly survey of important political issues relevant to this election. But after the economy and the NHS there seems to be little actual argument over policies. Housing and immigration do feature prominently in local hustings. But education, the EU, political reform: nobody seems interested. Instead the election news is dominated by Scotland. So that’s what I’ll cover this week.

The proximate cause of the fuss is the rise of the SNP. This surge was first evident in 2011 when they secured a majority in the Scottish Parliament, in spite of its proportional electoral system. But for some reason the Westminster parties did not appreciate the threat. The calculation may have been that unionists would easily win the referendum on Scottish independence which was to follow, and this would deflate the nationalist bubble. But the referendum caught the Scots’ imagination, and made the Westminster parties look flat-footed. The unonists won the referendum, but by a smaller margin than expected, and only through the use of negative tactics. The SNP bubble did not burst; new members flocked in, excited by its offer of hope and optimism.

The Lib Dems in Scotland had long been braced for bad things. Their association with the toxic Tories in Westminster turned a lot of their Scottish supporters off. But a collapse in the Labour vote took that party by surprise. They have offered nothing but negative campaigning and institutional inertia; it should have been no surprise – and it was certainly well-deserved. As a result the SNP seem certain to sweep Scotland on May 7, leaving Westminster with a problem. The party will surely hold the balance of power. and they have said that there is no way that they can support a Conservative government.

A flailing Conservative campaign has seized on this. It is stoking up English (and Welsh) voters with the idea a Labour government would be propped up by the SNP in a “coalition of chaos”. To stop this they are appealing to floating voters, especially those bending towards Ukip, to support the Conservatives to give them an outright majority and show the Scots who’s boss (they don’t actually articulate that last bit). Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major offered the English offered the country a stern warning.

So: what to make of this? My first reaction is exasperation at the Tories. They, more than anybody, and Mr Major, as much as any other leader, have created the situation where Scots and English and Welsh voters have diverged. Margaret Thatcher started it, with no comprehension of Scottish sensitivities. Mrs Thatcher “stole” the North Sea oil to prop up shaky English finances, and then dismantled much of Scotland’s old industry, creating mass unemployment. Well that’s how many Scots saw it, and still do, though whether Scotland would have been better off without her is another matter entirely. The final straw was piloting the hated “Poll Tax” in Scotland with no democratic mandate. Neither she, nor Mr Major, were interested in taking forward constitutional reforms that might give Scottish voters a greater say in their own government. Mr Major was quite passionate about this – he saw devolution as the start of a slippery slope. Well he wasn’t so wrong about that – but I hate to think what the state of Scottish politics would have been without devolution. The fact is that neither he nor Mrs Thatcher understood what was going on north of the border, and still less had any constructive solution. If the Tory brand was less toxic north of the border, the party would be much less isolated now, and the whole situation much more manageable. And if they truly believe in a democratic union, and the legitimacy of Britain’s electoral system (both core Tory beliefs), then they must allow that the SNP’s right to influence the British government is legitimate.

But the Tories are pointing to a real problem. The SNP have been setting out their stall on the UK-wide policies they would support. They want less “austerity” – i.e. more public expenditure unsupported by tax rises. They oppose Britain’s nuclear deterrent. They are also happy to vote on issues in the UK parliament that apply to England only – and in particular the NHS. Their justification for this is that Scottish public funding is based on the so-called “Barnett formula“, which ties it to levels of expenditure in England. The continued use of this formula represents a major strategic failure by the Westminster establishment. Unfortunately the three main Westminster political parties very publicly re-committed to it during the referendum campaign in a panicky “vow” in the last weeks. This gives cover for SNP MPs to make mischief. If only the Westminster politicians had thought about the matter more deeply, they could have found an escape route under the guise of giving Scotland more autonomy. But instead they simply put the matter on the “too difficult” pile, in classic Westminster style.

But how would a Labour-SNP partnership at UK level work out? The first point to make is not to underestimate the SNP leadership. Unlike the Westminster parties, they think strategically. They are unlikely to follow the playbook forecast by Mr Major, of demanding impossible things and storming off. A deal on economic policy is well within reach – the SNP vision actually sounds remarkably similar to Labour’s (bring the deficit down gradually; slowly reduce the level of national debt). A vote on the nuclear deterrent could well be engineered. SNP votes on selected English matters might well give the government a bit of stability. But two wider problems beckon.

The first is holding the Labour Party together. Many of the SNP demands will be popular with English and Welsh Labour supporters and MPs. This will exacerbate tension between Labour’s pragmatic leadership and its angry grassroots, its trade union backers, and its local mafias in key strongholds. To make matters worse, the party will be desperate to recover its standing in Scotland, and to fight back against the SNP. This is a toxic mix.

The second is just how SNP influence will play with the English public. The malign British press stand waiting to stoke up resentment. A backlash favouring both Conservatives and Ukip could well arise. This would be a lot worse if Labour has fewer MPs than the Conservatives, and yet are still able to form a minority government, because nobody will work with the Conservatives.

There are two ways that Labour might head off the problem, though. The first they will not like at all: and that is to form a minority coalition with the Liberal Democrats, so that they can securely outgun the Tories, and reduce their dependence on the SNP. They might then dare the SNP to bring this government down – along with some token concessions. This approach has the added advantage of a big block of Lib Dems in the House of Lords – which could be a key battleground for a minority government, but where the SNP are weak.

The second (and not incompatible) way is to quickly form a UK constitutional convention, to promote a package of political reforms for the UK. This is official Labour policy, though it ranks alongside their commitment in 2010 to introduce the Alternative Vote and reform of the House of Lords, both of which they torpedoed subsequently. It is official Labour policy to play for time – but they could start taking it seriously and giving it real political heft. This could, and should, provide cover to replace the Barnett formula, as well as portraying any partnership with the SNP as a stopgap while these bigger issues are dealt with in a properly democratic way.

Both solutions require rather more strategic insight than the Labour leadership has shown to date, however. But personally, I rather prefer the idea of a chaotic period of British parliamentary politics to a period of majority Conservative government. It might at last hasten the political reforms the country badly needs north and south of the border.

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British election: tactics have triumphed over strategy. The result is deadlock and danger.

To make sense of the opinion polls in Britain’s general election it is best to look at the BBC poll of polls.

BBC Poll of Polls

There just isn’t much going on. When each poll comes out there is a breathless headline, as the votes seem to shift from the last time the poll was taken – and this is usually expressed in terms of the gap between the top two parties. For example yesterday the Ashcroft poll showed a 4% Conservative lead rising from zero the previous time; and ICM showed the Conservative lead dropping by 2% to 2%. But all that is happening is random variation around something quite stable: Conservatives and Labour both on 34%; Ukip on 14%; the Lib Dems on 8%; and the Greens on 5%. Perhaps the Conservatives and Lib Dems have edged up slightly at the expense of Labour and Ukip in the last few days – but it is too early to tell. The big picture is remarkable stability.

The Conservatives seem to be the most perplexed by this. The party had a plan, the best possible professional advice, carefully tested on samples of voters, and everything had been working well. Good economic statistics have been coming out each week; they easily outmanoeuvred Labour in the Budget; the press mobilised and they have plenty of money. But they are stuck.

Their plan was to scare voters with the prospect of a Labour victory, both by demonising Labour’s leader Ed Miliband, and raising the prospect of higher tax or borrowing under Labour. Against the minor parties luring voters away, they created the phrase “coalition of chaos” to tap into general scepticism that coalitions mean broken promises.  With this, they had clearly calculated, they could bring in an election winning score, with the upper 30s in poll ratings and a lead over Labour of 6% or more. This was more about hauling voters in from Ukip and the Lib Dems, and abstainers, than actually converting Labour voters from 2010.

But the Tory approach to this election has proved to be all tactics and no strategy. Those professional advisers call themselves “strategists”, but they their brains carry no strategic thoughts. This is how the modern political class thinks: and so they are blaming failure on poor tactics. Much has been made of Mr Miliband doing well on television and so exceeding the low expectations. There is some evidence for this (his ratings seem to be a bit less dismal). But his performances cringe-worthy as ever – full of abstract ideas and only token connection with real people. The real problem is that the Tories are fighting against two very damaged brands. First their own, as the “nasty party”, on the side of the rich. Second the general brand of mainstream politicians as slippery so-and-sos out for themselves. And their problem is that strategically the party has gone backwards in the last five years. No clever tactics can cover for that.

Things had been picking up for the Conservatives when David Cameron took over in 2005. He worked hard to detoxify the Tory brand by associating it with softer policies and softer images. This had been working very well until shaken by the twin shocks of economic crisis and the MPs expenses scandal. Still, going into coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010 was an excellent strategic move. It gave substance to the detoxification process. But thereafter it collapsed. It turned out that detoxification was a tactic for the 2010 election, not a strategy. Out came all the vile Tory instincts: obsessive anti-Europeanism; bashing the disadvantaged; scepticism of environmental policies; and so on. This was mainly driven by the party’s backbenchers – but Mr Cameron lifted not a finger to stop it. A low point came in 2011 with the party’s campaign against implementing the Alternative Vote  (AV) electoral system, when they not only deployed a series of spurious arguments, but they launched a particularly nasty attack on the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg. Funnily enough, supporting AV would have been a good strategic move for the Tories – as this system tends to reinforce two party politics; advantages to the Lib Dems would have been short-lived. Since then the Tories have compounded their strategic errors – notably by neglecting Scotland and stirring up English suspicions of the Scottish. I will allow Mr Cameron credit for two positive strategic moves: support for gay marriage (which has helped detoxify the brand amongst gays, in spite of interanl opposition within the party) and the renegotiate-and-referendum policy on Europe. The latter is often viewed as a tactical concession to Ukip pressure – but there is real strategic value for the Conservatives in it – though a referendum campaign could kill the party, it is often strategically necessary to embrace risk.

Labour are no better. Their “strategists” conjured up a cunning tactical plan to win them the 2015 election: the 35% strategy. The idea was not so much compete to for the  Conservative vote, but to hang on to their core vote and scoop up a large chunk of the ex-Lib Dem vote. This equates roughly to 35%, and would ordinarily be enough to win under the country’s electoral system, if the Tories remain undermined by Ukip.  This fantastic graphic from YouGov shows that this has largely been working (hat-tip Mike Smithson of Political Betting, on of the best places to go for objective news on polling).

Where they wentLabour have been boosted by a large slug of ex-Lib Dem votes (though the Greens have scooped up a lot of these too – I suspect this is mainly in safe Labour seats). Meanwhile a large slug of the Tory vote has gone to Ukip.

Of course there’s a major flaw in Labour’s plan. Scotland. Labour’s relentless focus on political tactics rather than strategy meant that they didn’t see the SNP juggernaut approaching, in spite of its clear visibility ever since the Scottish assembly elections of 2011. It looks likely that the SNP will sweep Labour out of Scotland, along with the Lib Dems. Labour weren’t ready for this, and have had no effective tactics for handling it. They wasted a lot of energy on trying to tell their voters that a vote for the SNP would let the Tories in. The SNP have had little trouble in torpedoing this notion.

And this is the sort of thing that happens if you systematically neglect strategy, and focus on short-term advantage. You are vulnerable not just to getting stuck in a rut, like the Tories, but to sudden collapses in support. Look at the Lib Dems. The party had been relentlessly tactical in building its support base, especially under the watch of Charles Kennedy, its leader from 1999 to 2006. Nick Clegg, the current leader (since 2007), is more strategic but could not undo the party’s vulnerability; he completely misread the danger from promising not to raise student tuition fees in particular.  The result was that the party’s support collapsed as soon as they entered coalition with the Conservatives – even though this was a correct strategic decision. It was viewed as betrayal by many of the party’s voters and the party’s brand has been badly damaged. Though it is saying many sensible things in the campaign, and much that a lot of people would agree with, most people just aren’t listening – and its new pledges invite a sceptical response. It now relies on popular candidates to maintain its place in parliament. The party has some hard strategic choices to make after the election.

The only party that looks truly strategic is the SNP. They have had an easy hand to play, admittedly – simply to exploit the neglect of Scotland by Britain’s political class. But you can see them thinking two moves or more ahead all the time, allowing them to capitalise on their gains. They are now executing a tricky manoeuvre from the political right to the left without incurring any real damage.

But for Britain’s main parties strategy is much harder. To gain strategic advantage they have to sacrifice tactical benefits, and to take tactical risks. They need to address the generally bad reputation of politicians by being less negative and less aggressive towards their opponents; they need to embrace political reforms (on party funding and electoral systems) that may cause them short-term setbacks; they need to have open rows within their own ranks about what their parties stand for. For the Tories it looked as if Mr Cameron might embrace this agenda, but he lacked the courage. For Labour, David Miliband might have done so, but the party opted for his younger brother.

The highly professionalised and tactical focus of Britain’s political class has led to the current electoral impasse.  After the election it could lead to the breakup of the Union and the country’s departure from the EU. Does the country’s political class understand the danger it is in? Will the right leaders emerge to make the difficult political decisions needed? I’m not counting on it.

 

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Election issues: the NHS. None of the parties are credible on funding. Labour would create more chaos.

After the economy the biggest issue in Britain’s General Election is the NHS. This comes top, or near to the top, of most voters’ lists of concerns. Labour want to make the most of these worries, while the Conservatives want to muddy the waters.

Two things seem to worry voters in particular. The first is pressure on Accident & Emergency services, which is knocking on to other parts of the system. This gives a general sense of the system failing. The second is the effect of NHS reorganisations of local services. This is often associated with outsourcing. Whether the public is as incensed about this “privatisation” as people on the left think is an interesting question – but they are suspicious of any threat to familiar local services.

That the NHS is under stress should be no surprise. As the proportion of older people in the population rises, so does the workload – but not the tax base from which it is funded. Furthermore many new treatments tend to be expensive; technological change does not improve productivity – but simply increases demand as new treatments are found.

There is political consensus around the free-at-the-point of use principle of the NHS. This has both flaws and strengths, but the NHS does quite well in international comparisons, though more for value for money than keeping people alive. Given this there are two important issues for the politicians to tackle. The first is organisational architecture, and the second is funding. They are related, of course, since the efficiency with which the service uses its funding depends on the architecture of the service. But it helps to keep the two separate for now.

First let’s consider this organisational architecture. The NHS has evolved since a chaotic mix of institutions was nationalised in the 1940s. Two ideas have always competed: a Soviet-style command and control model, with clear accountability to the politician at the top of the system; or a demand led organisation where users create demand and the service is forced to follow it. The Left tends to focus on the first, which is slow to react to change, and beset by tribal organisational silos. The Right prefers the latter, which suffers from a lack of reliable information about the true level of demand, and creates organisational instability.

What we have is a compromise between the two approaches. The service is divided between commissioners, who identify what services are needed and make choices as what to prioritise with the available money. And providers, such as hospitals, who actually deliver services based on the identified demand, a small proprtion of which is outsourced to the private sector. In addition there are other organisations charged with making it all work, including regulators of various sorts. This includes NICE, which rules on what treatments provide acceptable value for money. This basic architecture was established by the last Labour government, and remains largely unchallenged by the parties – though it is disliked by many health professionals.

But the details of Labour’s system were flawed. It was designed by management consultants in less stringent times. At its heart was  an over-engineered monster called World Class Commissioning, with commissioning being spread out amongst a large number of Primary Care Trusts – which were bureaucratic, with little clinical input and token local accountability. The Coalition rightly attacked this structure, and set about redesigning it – with commissioning now being given to a combination of national specialist bodies and local commissioning groups, run by general practitioners. This succeeded both in bringing in more clinical input and improved local accountability. But it was a massive and distracting exercise (in spite of a Tory promise of “no top-down reorganisations”, enshrined in the coalition agreement). This was a serious mistake which has left much muddle in its wake. It was perfectly possible to achieve much the same ends on an evolutionary basis – piloting different approaches in different regions. The reorganisation has created a huge amount of bad blood, and not a little paranoia amongst health professionals. It has been accompanied by a steady process of outsourcing elements of the service, though no private or third sector organisation will take on the major hospitals that are at the system’s heart.

Alongside this reorganisation has been steadily increasing demand, which has run ahead of funding. The combination has resulted in huge organisational stress. The way in which the service started to cope with the extra demand, and the need for greater efficiency, was classic top-down and Labour-inspired. It was called the “Nicholson challenge” after the then Chief Executive of England’s NHS. Funds were ratcheted down gradually each year on all parts of the system, with a bullying “just-do-it” approach. This did not unlock enough of the creative thinking and deeper re-engineering that the service required. Much of the result was mindless cutting and hoping for the best. Under a new Chief Executive (with reduced job scope), Simon Stevens, a more intelligent approach is being adopted – but the wreckage remains.

Given this history, surely the best idea is to work on the current structure on an evolutionary basis. This is what the coalition parties propose to do. The main work-in-progress is something called “integration”. This means getting social care, run by local authorities, to run jointly with the NHS. Awkwardly, this cuts across many of the bureaucratic structures currently in place, especially when it comes to parcelling up the money. It is far from straightforward, and it makes sense to proceed by means of locally run pilot schemes. It runs alongside greater devolution of responsibilities, as exemplified by the recent deal regarding Greater Manchester. The wider the scope of a service, the more localised the organisation has to be in order to prevent unmanageable complexity and stasis.

The main challenge for Conservatives is their approach to outsourcing. There is nothing wrong with outsourcing elements of the NHS. It can bring in fresh ideas and fresh management. It can be used to bring in new ownership structures, like cooperatives and social enterprises, to replace the hierarchical empires that the current NHS fosters. But the way it has worked out is dysfunctional. The tendering process can be so complicated that only behemoth suppliers need apply. These behemoths can afford slick tenders put together by professional marketers and priced at whatever level it takes to win. Once they win they are free to break their promises and a general period of mindless hollowing out follows. Sometimes this is what is needed; usually not. Many Conservatives just don’t get this.

The challenge to Labour is a bigger one. They want to respond to the anger over the last reorganisation and reverse parts of it. Does this imply another chaotic reorganisation? Will it kill the good elements of reforms along with the bad? Do they think integration should be enforced top-down from the centre? Or will they follow the path of devolving political responsibilities? Does their idea of in-house NHS services being given preference mean less value for money and slower innovation? Will their idea of capping the profits of the outsources prove to be yet more bureaucracy that favours the heartless behemoths rather than the innovative social enterprises? Will Labour revert to the top-down, bullying style of management of old? And will they need SNP votes to get their reforms to the English system through? More uncertainty and chaos beckons.

The Lib Dems have a rather interesting take on NHS policy. They want to prioritise mental health services. As I have written elsewhere, I think this approach is inspired, and one of the better reasons for voting for the party. They stand for intelligent continuity.

And so we come to funding. Britons do not spend a particularly high level of money on health services (much less proportionately than the Americans), and there is no economic reason why the country shouldn’t spend a lot more than it does. There is no evidence that the overall level of demand is excessive because the service is free; people really want the services, and would pay a lot for it them if they had to. The problem is the opposite: funding is constrained by the need to pay for the service through taxes, where it competes with a whole lot of other things, like schools and policemen. And the government isn’t raising anything like enough tax to pay for it all.

Last year Mr Stevens produced a plan which showed that the service will need an extra £8bn per annum in five years’ time, even after a lot of efficiency savings. Will the political parties follow his plan? The problem is that its affordability depends on how well the economy and the tax base does – which is unknowable. The gaps between the parties come down to the different ways in which they are handling these forecasting uncertainties. The Conservatives are the most optimistic, Labour the least, and the Lib Dems somewhere in between. None of them are committing to sufficient tax rises if a growing economy does not deliver the extra tax revenue. Both Labour and the Lib Dems are offering some tax gimmicks to help close the gap, but none are offering the increases to Income Tax, VAT or National Insurance that will be required if the economists get their growth projections wrong (yet again). Labours plans are obscured by their issues of NHS organisation; they will not sign up to Mr Stevens’s plan for that reason.

If the NHS is starved of funds more people will go private, social solidarity will fade and a death spiral will be put in motion. Something very like this has happened to NHS dentistry. If we want to keep the NHS in its current format, with few charges, then this means extra tax, and not just the somebody-else-is-paying sort. It really is quite simple. It is very disappointing that our politicians (and Ukip, the Greens and the SNP are as bad as the others, or worse) will not face up to this. I find it impossible to choose between the parties based on their funding proposals.

Which leaves organisation as being the decisive issue. The coalition managed one step forward and one back. Labour’s attitude to organisation threatens another step or two backwards. The Conservatives are suspect on outsourcing and the most suspect on funding. The Lib Dems offer intelligent continuity, but, sadly, even in coalition they are unlikely to be given enough scope to put their way forward into practice.

 

 

 

 

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Election issues: the economy

The quality of debate in Britain’s General Election campaign is predictably awful. Arguments are reduced to simple sound bites. And parties try to muddy the waters on their opponents’ key issues rather than engage with them properly. Many issues are hardly discussed at all. In a doubtless futile mission to raise the level of debate I will look at a number of issues from rather more objective perspective, and handle the arguments on an altogether deeper level. I am not, of course, an objective observer: I will generally make the case for voting for the Liberal Democrats.

Let’s start with the issue the Conservatives most want to talk about: the economy, and which party is best placed to manage it. Their argument runs something like this: Labour cannot be trusted with the economy because they presided over the economic crash in 2008 and haven’t admitted their culpability. The Conservatives have a “long-term plan” that is yielding results without getting the country into too much debt.

Labour are more reticent. They don’t accept that their party was responsible for the crash (or no more responsible than anybody else). They are severely critical of the coalition’s economic record, which, they say, swung to much to “austerity” (i.e. too many spending cuts, benefits savings and a rise in VAT), which choked off and delayed the recovery. They point out that Tory plans for the next few years imply vicious cuts to welfare. They also point to stagnant living standards for most people. Their plans for the next parliament involve significantly more public borrowing, supposedly supported by higher levels of investment.

Arguments over the records of both sides over the last two parliaments are interesting enough. I mostly support the narrative of the coalition partners – but Labour can call on the support of many independent economists with real heft. But past record only counts to the extent it tells us about the future – and in this case it doesn’t tell us much at all. Both sides are placing more faith in the robustness of the British, European and world economies than is prudent.

Many economists and politicians assume that there is a natural rate of growth of about 2% per annum, based on improvements to productivity, that the economy can be guided towards by governments with sensible macroeconomic policies. This seemed to be true before 2008, but it is surely questionable now. Demographic changes, with the proportion of working age people falling, are only the most obvious reason for scepticism; there are plenty of others, about which I have written often. That leaves us with two critical problems. How would the parties cope with the likely possibility of continued economic stagnation? How might they reduce the risks of such stagnation by making the best of any opportunities the country does have for growth?

In the first case prolonged stagnation points to renewed austerity. In order to keep the national debt under control expenditure will have to be cut, or tax increased, or both. The deficit between taxes and spending is still high, and deficits are much harder to sustain if growth is low, even if, as now, interest rates are also low. Japan has managed to get away with prolonged deficits in spite of stagnation, it is true, but that is because they have trade surpluses and accordingly are less dependent on foreign borrowing. What will happen if Britain fails to get to grips with government finances? That is hard to say. In the modern, globalised economy, inflation looks much less of a risk, unlike the last time this situation arose, in the 1970s. Instead stagnation may become more entrenched, and unemployment rise, until there is a financial crisis and our banks start failing again.

If there is renewed austerity the question arises as to how much of the strain is to be taken by tax rises and how much by public spending cuts. As a nation, we have higher expectations of our public services and benefits than most: the NHS, schools, social care and pensions in particular. I cannot see how such expectations can be met without raising taxes. And here there is a big snag.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have ruled out any increase to Income Tax, National Insurance or VAT. These are the main taxes that the general public pays, and account for some two thirds of all taxes. Tax rises without touching these three mean, generally, that somebody else is paying. The trouble is that the “somebody else” idea is wearing thin indeed. Tax breaks for the rich have been steadily pared back (most recently on pension contributions), making our tax laws more complex and draconian in the process. Company taxes are considered off the agenda because that threatens investment (this may not be right – but treating company taxes as a football is clearly bad for investment). The wealthy are already paying for a large part of the services which they never use. Apart from practicality, we are threatening the idea that everybody should pay something towards public services, in order to maintain solidarity and consent. No party is facing up to this issue.

Labour is particularly vulnerable. Their spending plans are more generous than the Conservatives’, as they hope to borrow more against infrastructure investment. Their plan to cut university tuition fees is particularly foolish. The SNP and the Greens are even worse. The Tories are more realistic, if you take their formal plans, laid out in this year’s Budget, with a pinch of salt. These envisage an unrealistically vicious attack on benefits in the first two or three years, followed by a relaxation. This is likely to be smoothed out in practice. But the party gives the impression that they would squeeze public services and working-age benefits rather than raise taxes. This probably is not what most people want.

So, if the parties would rather not contemplate stagnation, how would they create the growth in productivity that would head this fate off? How might this be done? The traditional formula is so-called “supply-side” reforms – deregulation for the most part. The trouble is that these tend to benefit the lucky few, both in terms of skills and income, and geographical location, largely London and the south east of England, where property prices are already through the roof. So the most promising idea is to promote growth in the regions of England, and also Wales (Scotland is the one region of the UK has seems to have bucked the gravitational pull of the South East). There is no sign that any party wants to relax planning controls that might allow this swing to the prosperous areas to occur more smoothly. There is a growing realisation that more balanced growth can only be done through the devolution of political power, and the release of funds for infrastructure investment between and within the regional centres. The Coalition has been feeling the way forward with its City Deals, with Greater Manchester being the flagship.

Once again, the main parties are disappointing. The Conservatives seems to place too much faith in deregulation – and their hostility to the EU and immigration represent roadblocks to future growth. Labour shows an alarming impracticality when it comes regulating and taxing businesses – and tackling such issues as low pay and insecure temporary contracts. While both parties are starting to talk the game on regional devolution, there is reason to doubt their commitment. Labour’s attack on the decentralisation of the NHS to Greater Manchester was particularly revealing. On both sides there is a lack of fresh thinking. The Greens, SNP and Ukip, in their different ways, are worse.

What of the Lib Dems? They are silent on raising tax rates – which undermines their commitment to funding the NHS, for example. They are closer to the fresh thinking needed for regional growth – with a real understanding of what devolution means. They also have interesting ideas on developing a more diverse banking system and promoting alternative business ownership structures. But these ideas aren’t fully formed. They are the best of a bunch that ranges from weak to hopeless.

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The toxicity of the Tories is the most important fact of British politics

Britain’s Liberal Democrats will do much better in the country’s General Election on 7 May than most people expect. That’s because expectations are so low. The party is fighting hard in 50-60 marginal seats where they have a base to work with, and that intensive ground war is paying dividends, as shown in last week’s constituency polls published by the Ashcroft organisation. But outside those seats the party’s predicament is dire. The party used to routinely pick up 10-15% across the country, and lost few if any election deposits (which require 5% of the vote). Now its national poll rating seems stuck at about 8% and in many seats a lost deposit looks very likely. The party is considered to be such an irrelevance that few people noticed a feisty performance by their leader Nick Clegg in last week’s seven-way leaders’ debate. What has happened?

The answer is simple: coalition with Britain’s Conservative Party. The party has learnt the hard way what many had suspected beforehand. The Conservative brand is so toxic to so many people in the UK that another party doing a deal with it, or a least a deal where the Conservatives play the lead role, suffers a kiss of death. Those who don’t consider the Tories toxic (30-40% of the electorate) vote for the party; nobody else will touch any party that deals with it. This lesson has been marked well by Britain’s other centre and left of centre parties: the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the Greens. Even for the far-right Ukip the issue is a delicate one. They have been fishing for votes enthusiastically amongst Conservative inclined voters. But Labour inclined working class and lower middle class votes are strategically important to them. These voters do not have the sort of progressive, liberal attitudes that many on the left assume. And yet for them the Tory brand is as toxic as for anybody else.

And this toxicity is vital to understanding how politics will play after the election. The Conservatives may well win a plurality of seats, but well short of a majority. But it will be more than difficult for them to do deals to allow them to form a government. The SNP (who might well win big in Scotland), Plaid Cymru and the Greens (though they are only likely to have a single MP) will not touch them – even to abstain. Ukip and the Lib Dems will be more than wary. The Lib Dems stand open to the possibility, but will surely demand too high a price. A grand coalition with Labour, in spite of my speculation last year, would destroy that party (they tried it with painful consequences in the 1930s) absent a state of war. Only Ulster Unionists stand ready to deal, at the cost of taking the province’s politics forward.

Labour, on the other hand, are in a much stronger position. An outright coalition with this most tribal of parties would be a tall order for any party. But some kind of lesser deal involving conditional support or abstention is feasible for all the other parties, apart from Ukip – including the Conservatives, if that suited their purposes (a referendum on Europe, perhaps). That makes a Labour led government much the most likely outcome of this election, although it might take some time to come together.

It’s worth pondering how this situation has come about.  The Tory brand has always been toxic to many working-class voters, based on old-fashioned class loyalties. The party’s reluctance to embrace non-white immigration has extended this toxicity to most ethnic minority communities, even in the middle-classes. But class feeling is in slow decline. The picture amongst ethnic minorities is more complex, but the Conservatives have moved on from their racist attitudes for the most part. These forces should be declining, but the problem for the Tories is not.

A further problem arises from the distribution of the party’s votes. It is becoming more concentrated in relatively prosperous areas, especially in the south-east of England. Under Britain’s single member constituency electoral system this reduces the number of seats they can win. But this does not explain the party’s toxicity, except to give a regional slant to the party’s image. It is why the party’s toxicity is more of a problem for it.

I suspect developments in the economy have a lot to do with it. The Conservatives are the party of economic winners. Not so long ago upward mobility was a more general expectation. So even if the winners were in a minority, many more people would aspire to do well, and so associate with the party. The message of self-reliance and making good through your own efforts, without the state and taxes getting in the way, appealed to many working class and lower middle class voters. Margaret Thatcher (and her predecessor Ted Heath) were from this upwardly mobile background, and successfully maintained a broad class appeal. But now upward mobility seems blocked for many people.  Those with less good education, poorer social networks or living in the wrong places saw diminished possibilities for betterment. Indeed, steady industrial era jobs were replaced by poorer quality service ones. There is a strong sense of us-and-them with little mobility between them (or more precisely little upward mobility and the constant risk of downward mobility).  And the Tories are often blamed for making things worse – as much de-industrialisation occurred on Mrs Thatcher’s watch. Tory appeals to self-reliance now look like heartlessness – even amongst the better off.

Amongst the Tories themselves there seems to be a pernicious negative feedback loop. The party attracts people that can only be described as nasty. The old consensual “one-nation” Toryism is long dead, and even Mrs Thatcher’s habitual caution too. There is also a wholly unbalanced obsession with the European Union, seen as the source of all the country’s ills. David Cameron, who is not part of this nasty tendency, struggles to contain these toxic types. It is interesting to speculate what might have become of the party had it won outright in 2010 and governed alone. I suspect that the party would be even more toxic that now.

People on the left might chuckle at the prospect of the Tories becoming so toxic that they are likely to be banished from power. And yet they represent a third of the electorate. And much of what is not Tory is a stale, backward looking muddle with little idea of how to take the country forward beyond extending bureaucratic blather to all corners of life. The country would be better governed if Tories were engaged in the political dialogue, rather than treated as toxic pariahs. But they largely have themselves to blame.

 

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Are the Tories winning the air war and losing the ground war?

Britain’s electorate does not choose a Prime Minister in May’s General Election. It chooses a local MP. And enough of them have already made up their mind in England and Wales to make that choice a foregone conclusion in most places, so that the real fight is occurring in a limited number of marginal seats. Has the Conservative Party forgotten this basic architecture of British politics?

That might explain something that is rather puzzling about the election campaign. The Conservatives are having a good “air war” in the expression made famous by Bill Clinton. That means coverage on general media on a largely national level. Labour’s strategy seems to be that government’s lose elections rather than oppositions win them. They have not spelled out a clear alternative vision for the country – preferring to keep party unity intact by concentrating on complaining about the coalition government.

Thus Labour have surrendered the initiative in the air war. The Tories have exploited this brilliantly with “bait and switch” tactics. They fly a kite about some policy or other (public expenditure is the biggest; VAT is this week’s example). Labour duly attack, only for the Conservatives to move in a different direction. And they have undermined Labour’s attempt to create sound-bite policies. For example Labour promised to cut student tuition fees by removing a tax break for pension contributions for the wealthier; the coalition duly  removed the tax break and baked it into the budget baseline. Meanwhile previous Labour attacks, on Keynesian economic management, on unemployment and on energy prices have been undermined by events. The Tory leader, David Cameron, seems at ease and in control – even his supposed gaffe over not wanting to serve more than two terms plays to that impression. In contrast Labour’s Ed Miliband has turned into Britain’s whingemaster general – without giving any impression that he would do any better himself. The Conservatives are well organised; they have powerful allies in the press, which still seem to set the agenda for broadcast media, especially the BBC. Labour are being routed.

But here’s the puzzle: it seems to be having little effect on their poll ratings. Both parties have been edging up slightly, at the expense of the insurgent Ukip. The Conservatives cannot establish the lead they need to overcome the awkward distribution of their vote under the country’s electoral system. Notwithstanding Labour’s impending disaster in Scotland (where, unlike England and Wales, most seats could change hands) the Conservatives do not look as if they will even be the largest party in parliament, still less win outright. Party HQ reassures the nervous footsoldiers that things will turn good in the last weeks. Maybe.

But things are worse than that. A recent survey by the Ashcroft organisation of key Labour-Tory marginals showed that Labour was ahead in all but one. Constituency polls also show the Tory coalition partners the Liberal Democrats confounding their dismal national poll rating in Tory-facing marginal seats. The Lib Dem position grows stronger the more voters are reminded that they are voting for their local MP, and not the national leader. And this poses the question: are the Conservatives losing the “ground war”? The process of direct voter contact by doorstep, phone, social media and locally tailored literature – which is focused on those marginal seats.

The Tories seem to have a weakness here. They don’t attract many younger supporters these days (in striking contrast to Labour), and their policies don’t seem designed to engage with that group anyway. Many of their older activists have defected to Ukip, are demotivated, or are, well, just getting too old. Money can help. One marginal reports literature being delivered at full cost by the Royal Mail. Hired help can make up some of the gap on literature delivery. But it is much less effective in direct voter contact – canvassing – and useless in social media interaction. Direct mail, a past Tory favourite, seems to be losing its value for money.

Labour, meanwhile, have upped their game. They are well organised, disciplined and, in many cases, downright cunning. Here in Battersea – which they lost in 2010 and which many had assumed was out reach this time – they have been using camouflaged front campaigns on the NHS and something called Women of Wandsworth (WoW) Mums. They also seem to be outgunning their opponents on literature. The Lib Dems have always been quite good at the ground war, and are targeting their efforts ruthlessly to make up for their reduced number of activists.

So ground war may be trumping the air war. This runs counter to the conventional wisdom of British politcos, who almost always attribute the success of past Labour or Tory campaigns to the air war (though not those of the other parties). This may always have been overdone. It may be that the parties’ ground war campaigns have cancelled each other out better in the past. But it may also be that British electors make their choices differently these days. The coalition may have damaged the Lib Dems’ appeal, but it has planted the idea that smaller parties matter. Cynicism over national politics has always run ahead of the standing of local MPs – from whom people expect more, even as opinions of politicians in general sink. Besides, national news media may be being crowded out by web and social media (even if their content is overwhelmingly non-political).

It may even prove a mistake for the Conservatives to have torpedoed the leader debates, whose original structure supported their two-party narrative and could have drawn more people into the air war.

Or maybe, as Tory politicians hope, people will come to their senses in the coming weeks: something which both Labour and Lib Dem politicians also hope in their different ways. But my betting is that the game has changed and politicians need to catch up.

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