Jeremy Corbyn and Hobson’s Imperialism: why it scares me

The latest antisemitism row to engulf Labour concerns Jeremy Corbyn’s foreword to to a modern edition of the writer J A Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study, written in 1901. This is dividing Mr Corbyn’s critics and supporters in a familiar way. But its wider significance is what it reveals about the way Mr Corbyn, and many of his allies, view history and politics.

Before launching into this I need to clear the deck. First, this new edition was published in 2011, long before anybody, including himself, could have viewed Mr Corbyn as a potential Labour leader, whose words would be subject to widespread scrutiny. That makes it more revealing, but it doesn’t say how his understanding of antisemitism might have moved on since. Second: I have read neither Hobson’s book, nor Mr Corbyn’s foreword, which doesn’t seem to be available online (and I don’t have a Kindle). I am having to base my views on two sources: the original article from The Times‘s Daniel Finkelstein that kicked the current episode off. Second a short article by academic Mike Taylor on Hobson’s book in the Guardian, which doesn’t add anything to Mr Finkelstein’s article, but helps give me more assurance about its factual accuracy.

Hobson sought to show that 19th Century Imperialism was driven by financial interests, who succeeded in manipulating the politics of the time to support imperialist policies from which they made financial gain. He further went on to say, unusually for time, that imperialism was exploitative and did not represent an advance to human civilisation. The antisemitism arises because he thought that what I have termed “financial interests” was a predominantly Jewish elite with no fixed national reference point. He doesn’t quite say that it is the Jews in this book, but a couple of references, one to a “single and peculiar race” and another to the Rothschilds, are unmistakable, and other Hobson writings are explicit, not just about high-flying financiers, but also the Jewish working classes of London’s East End. This was a widespread view at the time.

It isn’t too hard to mount a defence of Mr Corbyn. It does appear that Hobson’s antisemitism is worn quite lightly in this particular work: the same two quotes are used again and again. The important bit is not this, but there were (and are) powerful commercial and financial interests controlled by international (and national) elites capable of influencing policy. They don’t have to be Jewish, and probably Mr Corbyn doesn’t think that aspect is very important. The rest of the analysis stands, and it is very striking. The interests of big business and finance was doubtless a factor in the development of imperialism, as they found home markets constricted and European or North American markets hostile to foreign competition. In those days big business was dominated by food, textiles, mining, steel, capital goods (ships and railways especially) and armaments. It is not hard to see how that could lead to imperialism. Furthermore Hobson was clearly ahead of his time in understanding just how destructive imperialism was.

So far, so good. But three criticisms are still valid, and show just how bad a choice Labour members made when selecting Mr Corbyn to be their leader. First is that antisemitism. It runs right through this work, and at the time it was written that would have been understood clearly. It is one aspect of left-wing antisemitism which went on to the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union and then throughout Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Hobson’s work was known to be highly influential to Lenin and it formed part of the narrative that drove this particularly ugly side to the political left. It it clearly hasn’t disappeared; it is rampant and barely challenged outside the developed world, and clearly remains an issue in parts of the modern Labour Party. Mr Corbyn’s foreword to this book was an opportunity to say something about this but instead he said nothing. Through ignorance or bad judgement it clearly wasn’t important to him.

Second, for all its farsightedness, Hobson’s analysis is clearly deeply flawed. Imperialism suited many other people beyond big business leaders. Not least of these were the workers of the imperialist powers, for whom big business generated jobs and income. This was a time (i.e. especially after the 1850s) when living standards for workers advanced steadily and when what people would later call the social democratic consensus started to develop, notably through the work of German socialist politician Eduard Bernstein. This followed the insight that capitalists and workers had a common interest in the health of the industrial economy. How far can workers of the time be allowed to take responsibility for their own political decisions, (i.e. in this case backing imperialism), or are they always being manipulated? This is one of the great divides in the history of socialism, with Lenin and Hobson taking the latter view. If Mr Corbyn is in this camp, which I have suggested before, it means that his commitment to democracy only goes as far as it suits him.

As an aside I can’t help but repeat a couple of quotes from Hobson’s book:

Does anyone seriously suppose that a great war could be undertaken by any European state, or a great state loan subscribed, if the house of Rothschild and its connections set their face against it?

And in reference to great European finance houses:

There is not a war, a revolution, an anarchist assassination, or any other public shock, which is not gainful to these men; they are harpies who suck their gains from every new forced expenditure and every sudden disturbance of public credit

Anybody who knows anything of the detail of the causes of the Great War in 1914 will understand just how silly this is. The causes were complex, but the forces of international finance were not part of it: instead an overmighty military in the three great empires of Germany, Russia and Austria played a large role, without the restraint of strong political leadership. If anything the forces of finance were part of the cautious inertia of the establishment which came so close to preventing the war from occurring. With reason. The thirty years of destruction unleashed by that war destroyed most of the accumulated wealth in the developed world, along with many millions of lives. It wasn’t rootless internationalism that caused war, but an excess of its opposite.

The third criticism to make about Mr Corbyn’s foreword is what else he says, beyond praising its insight and prescience. According to Mr Finkelstein:

Since the Second World War, the Labour leader argues, “the big imperial force has been the United States on behalf of global capitalism and the biggest, mostly US-based corporations”. This has been supported by propaganda about “freedom”. This propaganda effort was designed to “accompany the military re-occupation [of Europe] under the guise of Nato. Thus the Cold War was followed by American media and cultural values, in an attempt to create an empire of the mind.”

He contrasts this attempt to subjugate people through the “malign influence of the CIA” and pliant governments with the influence of the Soviet Union. “The Soviet influence was always different and its allies often acted quite independently,” writes Mr Corbyn.

Daniel Finkelstein, 30 April 2019, The Times

This is exceptionally revealing. Of course the history of the Cold War is a lot murkier than the version our politicians fed us, and industrial interests played their role – though I would argue that these were at least as powerful and important in the Soviet bloc. But to argue that NATO amounts to a military occupation of Western Europe by US interests is plain silly. What popular uprisings did US-led fores put down? And how independent really were Soviet allies after their interventions in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia? And should we really see European people as helpless victims of the imposition of US culture, dictated by big US corporations (after their subjugation of their own people?). And did the Soviet authorities not try just as hard to manipulate people’s minds? Again we have the idea that ordinary people cannot be trusted because they are so easily manipulated by the rich.

It is no surprise that this leads to support for the Castro regime in Cuba and the Chavez/Maduro one in Venezuela. It is one thing to take a hard-headed view about the influence of US policy in the world, and to recognise its considerable dark side. It is another to indulge in fantasy. Socialists can be divided into roughly two sorts: the romantics who have faith in a bottom up movement of the masses (think Rosa Luxembourg) and the hard-headed sort who ruthlessly focus on control of power by a select elite (think Lenin or Xi Jinping). The former end up in failure, the latter in oppression. Mr Corbyn is trying to romanticise the ruthless strand of socialism, which is the worst of both worlds. It suggests that while he is not a ruthless operator himself, he is liable to be manipulated by those that are.

All of which leads to the question of what would happen if Jeremy Corbyn became British Prime Minister. It suggests that a government under his leadership would lack the competence to govern effectively, while turning on any British institutions when things go wrong. I think those British institutions are strong enough to survive, and that the Labour Party will eventually reject the hard-left narrative that Mr Corbyn represents. But what this country does not need after years of stasis arising from Brexit (whichever way it eventually goes), is another few years in a muddled and incompetent experiment with socialism.

The Brexit chaos offers Labour an opportunity

Most people who follow British politics are in despair, as neither government nor parliament are able to plot a way forward with sufficient backing to succeed. But perhaps the small band of advisers to Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, who famously think that Brexit is a subsidiary issue, are sensing opportunity.

When Mr Corbyn was elected as Labour leader in 2015, Conservatives were gleeful, foreseeing a generation of permanent Tory rule. But Brexit and a blinkered leader have undone them. In 2017 they threw away a massive poll lead and lost their parliamentary majority. In recent months they have retained a consistent poll lead over Labour. This is not enough to break the deadlock, but enough to keep Labour out. But that could change.

Consider the possible outcomes of the current impasse over Brexit. A strong possibility is that the country will crash out of the EU on 11 April without a deal. Neither government nor parliament wants this, but neither can they agree on a deal, nor do they have the courage to revoke the Article 50 withdrawal process altogether. So what are the likely consequences?

It is hard to know just how bad things will be in the event of a no-deal Brexit, as most commentators are either pumping up the dangers or dismissing them. But some of the more thoughtful Brexiteers, like Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, are clearly rattled. Agricultural tariffs seem to be what is spooking him. Agriculture is not a major part of the economy by monetary value, but politicians the world over know that it packs a big political punch. There will be other problems, not all entirely attributable to Brexit, that will add to the misery. The British car industry is flat on its back. This is partly to do with Brexit, and the effect of planning blight on an industry that has to investment for years ahead. But also it is almost entirely foreign-owned and the underlying economics has changed to make repatriation of manufacturing to home countries more advantageous. A no-deal will accelerate its decline and the massive loss of prestige that will go with it. And there will be a hundred other smaller humiliations, that will be felt keenly by the better-educated and more worldly third of the population who never wanted it in the first place.

It gets worse. Britain will still have to deal with the EU and work out new agreements to allow a thousand things that we take for granted to keep going. This will not be easy as Brexiteers promise, and further humiliating climb-downs are in store. The only place where the hard Brexiteers may be proved right is Ireland. The Irish Republic is only now facing up to the consequences of its hard line on the Withdrawal Agreement and finds itself in a very sticky spot, just as the DUP and the Tory supporters predicted.

In the chaos Labour should be able to force a General Election, even if the government tries to struggle on. The Conservatives don’t have a majority, and have been struggling with a stream of defections. The DUP may well decide that the fun of propping it up is over and withdraw its support. The Tory position will be desperate. If Labour are able to launch their strike quickly, they may not even be able to change leader. In that event they stand no chance of presenting a coherent and convincing case to electors. More likely they will manage to find somebody new, but though he (or much less likely, she) might experience a honeymoon, there will not be enough time for them to get a strong grip on the organisation. Meanwhile Labour, and everybody else, will throw back at the Brexiteers that will then be in charge of the party, all their false prospectuses about Brexit and the no-deal.

What happens if Britain manages to avoid a no-deal? One scenario only gives the Tories a chance: if they are able to get Theresa May’s deal through parliament at the fourth attempt, and then leave in a relatively orderly fashion on 23 May. But to do that they will need a substantial block of Labour MPs, and if the Labour leadership resists, that surely will not happen. Ruling that out, what could happen is some sort of long stay of execution to renegotiate the deal and organise a General Election.

What does Labour do then? It needs to promise a new exit deal to be confirmed by a further referendum. To win, Labour must rally the Remain voters who will no longer be able to support the Tories: that means promising a referendum. But they also need to rally at least some Leave supporters. The importance of these to Labour has been exaggerated, but the party will still need all the votes it can get. But the leadership can still say that it is in favour of Brexit, and will campaign in favour of its new deal when that referendum comes. If that looks a little weak, the Tories will be struggling to come up with a coherent alternative. With decent execution (never a given in British politics after Tony Blair) this could be a winner for Labour.

But are still problems for them. The first is Scotland. Labour has always struggled to win without a substantial bank of Scottish seats. But they have been outflanked on Brexit there by the SNP, who remain organisationally strong. It is hard to see what killer arguments they can use against them.

A second problem for Labour is that it still lacks traction in rural and suburban England. Mr Blair conquered these areas by promising neoliberalism. Labour can’t do that this time. Also they are broadly pro Brexit, so any referendum promise will get in the way. Some form of “progressive” alliance with the Lib Dems, the Greens and even with TIG might help to unlock these seats. But Labour’s strategy for dealing with these parties is to crush them, not lend them a hand.

Which is related to the third problem: the Tories will try to change the subject, as Labour so successfully did in the last election. They will not talk about Brexit any more than they really have to. Instead they will paint Labour as loopy lefties, who can’t be trusted to run the nation’s finances, the forces of law and order, or to control the borders. Labour might think that the country is fed up with “austerity”, but the voters they need to win over think that being careful with public spending is a good thing.

That makes it hard for Labour, but not impossible. Their shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, understands the need for a disciplined message on economic management, and the party’s campaign managers surely realise that abstract ideas like austerity cut little ice compared to concrete messages on impacts of cuts to education and police funding, for example.

The Labour leadership is reaching its moment of truth. Their strategy of sticking to a narrow, leftist agenda (unlike Mr Blair’s broad centrist one) is inherently risky. But the Tories may be gifting them their chance. Will they be up to the task?

Do not underestimate the Labour Party

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Britain’s Labour Party is neck-and-neck with the Conservatives in opinion polls. Surely, many claim, this means that Labour are in trouble, and its leadership is woefully complacent? The Tories are in an utter mess, the argument goes, so if Labour aren’t streets ahead now they never will be. I’m not so sure.

The first part of that argument is surely correct. The Conservatives are caught in a conflict between Brexit fundamentalism and reality. Such conflicts, when you are the governing party, bode ill. Government pronouncements are almost comic. Today, for example, David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, raised the prospect of a Mad Max dystopia after Brexit, which we can happily avoid, he suggests, by staying in the EU in all but name. Well that’s how it sounds. But worse, Theresa May is a lacklustre leader, neither able to present an inspiring vision, nor to handle the everyday give and take of networking and negotiation the role requires. The party is shrinking, and it is failing to capture the interest of younger voters, by which I mean under-50s. Its chosen core support base is literally dying. The party is being hollowed out in a way reminiscent of the not dissimilar situation it faced in the mid-1990s under John Major.

But then a relaunched Labour Party under Tony Blair established a massive poll lead and then crushed the Conservatives in the election of 1997. So why isn’t today’s Labour Party doing much better than it is? It is reported that the Labour leadership feel confident that they can repeat their performance in last year’s election of a poll surge during the campaign itself. And yet surely the Tories will not run such a dire campaign? They may be running out of activists but they have no shortage of donors. A halfway decent manifesto should mobilise the oldies better, and in a second attempt they can surely create doubts about Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. And the voting system is tilted in their favour.

What the Conservatives have to play with is Labour’s lurch to the left under Mr Corbyn, and the rapidly growing hold of his supporters, organised by the Momentum movement, over the party. This has awoken traditional fears of Labour – and this seems to be propping up the party’s poll rating, as well as motivating wealthy donors. In the 1990s Mr Blair tacked his party to the centre and wooed Tory backers. He left his opponents with no oxygen; how different is Labour’s strategy now.

But I have underestimated Labour’s leadership once (last year), and I don’t want to do it again. Labour retains some key strengths, and the Tories some concealed weaknesses. This will not guarantee Labour victory in the next election, but it will give them a base from which to make a serious challenge.

Labour’s first strength is that they are building a solid political coalition of core support. Last week I described an idea that I called “Brixton liberalism”, and how it gave me hope about the future of liberal values. Labour has a stranglehold on Brixton liberals, notwithstanding the party’s distinctly un-liberal instincts. They have seen off two challenges: from the Liberal Democrats, following the period of coalition in 2010 to 2015, and the Greens. The Lib Dems, my party, seem to have retreated to the professional middle classes; they are hoping to win liberal voters from Labour through anti-Brexit feeling. This shows no sign of making headway. The Greens have been almost completely crushed; Labour’s intent to maintain their stranglehold was recently shown by their airing of policies on animal welfare. They are presenting themselves as the Green Party by other means.

The Brixton liberal coalition comprises many younger professionals, especially those linked to the public sector, and the new working classes, who are often members of ethnic minorities. A common theme is that these people have been priced out of owning their own property, and have no prospect of secure social housing. It is particularly strong in London. To these can be added trade unionists, who see real hope of extending their influence, through job protection, nationalisation and subsidies for declining industries. How will Labour fare amongst traditional, white working classes, especially outside the cities? These are the Labour heartlands that Mrs May hoped to capture last year, and came closer than many credit to succeeding. But the Tory appeal to this group may have peaked. It is very conservative, and Mrs May was a good standard bearer for that type of conservatism – she might have succeeded if she had offered more to older voters. But her reputation for competence has taken a knock, and any successor is likely to a sharper, more liberal type who will be distrusted by working class voters. We can expect Labour to continue their studied ambiguity on Brexit and immigration, so as not to scare off this group.

The second thing going for Labour is that they are doing careful work on their policies. Their critics dismiss Labour’s policies as a throwback to the failed policies of the 1970s. Public ownership of utilities, the roll-back of public-private partnerships of all kinds, free university education, and so on all seem to play to that narrative. But Labour are quietly giving a modern gloss to these policies. They will argue that they developing new models of managing the public sector, and not going back to the bad old days. No doubt they plan to have it both ways – invoking nostalgia for the old days alongside enthusing newer voters. Besides, some of those old ideas don’t look that bad in hindsight: council housing for example. By contrast any new ideas the Conservatives come up with are likely to be more neoliberal fare that will themselves look dated. While South America shows that we should not write off neoliberalsim, it is only likely to make a comeback after voters have experienced a long period of badly implemented socialist policy.

And the third thing in Labour’s favour is the diminishing hold of traditional media, which have acted as the Conservatives’ attack dogs for generations. Last year’s election was something of a watershed there. Jeremy Corbyn was their dream target, but they could make no traction. Their current campaign that Mr Corbyn was a cold war spy show that they still haven’t got it. Who cares?

And the Conservatives hidden weakness? They are not preparing for the next election in the way that Labour is, or the way that David Cameron did before 2015. Last year’s snap election showed how important such preparation is. Mrs May turned out to be flying blind, without any of the usual preparatory groundwork. Two things are spoiling the outlook for the Conservatives. First is Brexit – it so hard to see how it will play out over the next few years, and therefore what message will work best for the government. Could it be a big anticlimax, defying the Remoaner critics? Could there even be some quick wins, allowing a pro-Brexit counterattack?Or will there be early victims, forcing the Tories to find appropriate scapegoats? And an even bigger problem is the leadership. Mrs May showed herself up as inept in national campaigning, and if anything she has deteriorated since. And yet her party dare not replace her, as each of her rivals shows even deeper flaws. If a new, more dynamic leader should emerge later in the parliament, as many Tories hope, he or she will not have long to pull together an effective campaign, which can take years.

And so if the Labour leadership look quietly confident, they have every right to be.

 

Is Jeremy Corbyn channelling Margaret Thatcher?

Humble pie is a difficult dish to eat. I have had to eat a very large helping when it comes to the Labour Party, after their success in the general election. But now Labour’s Autumn conference is over, I need to venture back into the fray.

On reflection, I got two things badly wrong. The first was the leadership’s competence under Jeremy Corbyn. I based my scepticism on the ineffectiveness of Labour in parliament before the election, amongst other things. The second was that Labour would be able to defy the conventional wisdom about the “middle ground” by bringing large numbers of new voters into the fray. That was based on all manner of past experience. Basing conclusions on evidence is all very well and good, but the danger is that it leads to driving through the rear mirror. Also I had little direct experience of what was happening in the party, and was relying too much on journalistic sources, even if much of this came from Labour insiders.

During the election the leadership showed increasing command of the political game. They produced an excellent manifesto (in terms of its political usefulness, rather than as a programme for government) and showed a really good grasp of modern campaigning techniques. Since the election, Labour’s parliamentary game has been much better. And Mr Corbyn pops up on the radio sounding relaxed and in command of his brief. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, appears terrified of any encounter that involves her having to answer questions or explain herself. She delivers carefully worded set-piece speeches, and then runs for cover.

All those Labour activists that I dismissed as delusional must be feeling vindicated. If there is a bit of euphoria going on, that is completely understandable. Is there hubris? Clearly there is among some supporters, but I have underestimated the leadership before and I don’t want to do it again. It looks more to me that they are moving from Phase I of their plan to Phase II in a highly businesslike manner.

It is not surprising that many Labour supporters think that an election victory and government are within their grasp. There are quite a few sceptics, who pore through the entrails (or “evidence”) to show how difficult or unprecedented this might be. The Tories did well in northern working class seats, for example: can Labour really hold onto these at the same time as making further progress in metropolitan seats? And so on. But for once I’m with the Labour optimists. The Conservatives are now in complete disarray. They may be able to avoid some of the mistakes of June’s election, but without consistent, strong leadership they will be starting from a much weaker position. Labour, meanwhile have built up more credibility, and can catch a sense that it is time for a change from that conventional wisdom that leftists call “neoliberalism”. Labour can do it.

When trying to think back to a precedent in British politics I struggled a bit. Tony Blair, also up against a Tory party that had lost the will to win, used a completely different strategy. His revolution was of style only; in policy he closely matched the Conservatives, except for a few, carefully chosen policies that he could put on a small pledge card. I have called it “the same, only different” after an advertising slogan for a product I have long forgotten. Mr Corbyn promises a real revolution. True he is vague about the details. And the manifesto was considered quite moderate by many – in line with standard European socialist thinking, it is said (though what has happened to those European socialist parties doesn’t bear thinking too hard about). But the core ideas are a radical departure from conventional wisdom, even if that wisdom is looking rather tired.

It then occurred to me what it reminded me of: Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1970s. Mrs Thatcher too took over her party’s leadership in opposition, after a humiliating defeat. And she struggled at first to impose her authority, and to present an electorally favourable image. She stuck to a radical, if vague, policy vision, which broke from the consensus. But the government (also in minority) was in disarray, and she managed to secure a victory after an election forced by a confidence vote. All this looks very like Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party. Are we on the threshold of 18 years of Labour rule that will transform Britain?

There are some shadows. First there is Mr Corbyn himself. He is now much more confident and energetic. But there are two questions. How long can he keep up being all things to all people? It doesn’t seem to matter what he actually says, people project their wishes onto him. He draws in Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike. Some people think he will abolish student debt, or implement electoral reform, though he has never said he would. I haven’t seen anything like it since the early days of Tony Blair. The second question is how long he can keep going physically? He is in his seventies. He can do one more election, for sure – but not Mrs Thatcher’s three. Securing a successor who can maintain the momentum looks very hard. I might yet be surprised on this – but I have seen younger leadership prospects come and go (remember Lisa Nandy?). They may be attractive in their way, but they lack weight somehow. Rebecca Long-Bailey is now talked of as the rising star. How long will that last?

The second shadow is over the party itself. Any successful political party is a coalition of people who don’t really like each other – but Labour have taken this to an extreme. Close to the heart of the new party is a group of people who are, shall we say, not very nice. The online (and sometimes  physical) abuse of people that disagree with them is shocking. The BBC correspondent Laura Kuenssberg needed a bodyguard at the party conference. On the other hand, this looks like the flipside of the drive and ruthlessness that is responsible for the party’s unexpected success. These are people who have been fighting against the odds for their whole political lives. The danger is that the many thousands of newer members, who still have some belief in decency and pluralism, get put off. I have to be a bit careful here. A lot of my information comes from the usual unreliable sources. And the party leadership may be more on top of the problem than I think. And at the moment, it needs to be said, Labour is more united than it has been for a long time. But that is partly because they are choosing not to bring divisive issues, not least Brexit, to a head.

And the third shadow is  policy. It may constitute a radical departure from neoliberalism, but that doesn’t make it the right direction to address the country’s many problems. A lot of it reads like a throwback to the policies of Labour in the 1970s. There may be some talk of decentralisation, helping communities and giving people a voice – but the overwhelming ethos of Labour is for big government solutions imposed by a insightful elite, as it always has been. A National Education Service, for example, is their answer to Britain’s education issues. To be fair, though, their new ideas on rent controls are about giving local politicians the power to intervene, rather than trying to impose the same solution on everybody. Am I underestimating the leadership again, as I did before their manifesto? I need to be careful.

I am a bit torn. One part of me wants to give Labour the benefit of the doubt – and hope that genuinely innovative policy ideas lurk behind the 1970s camouflage. Another part of me is a bit scared. I see a ruthless elite clinging to power by undermining our democratic institutions, as their policy solutions fall apart and people turn against them. For now the jury is out.

Was Grenfell Tower Theresa May’s Black Tuesday?

Britain’s Conservatives are in an extraordinarily deep mess. Their catastrophic their election failure was followed quickly by the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which to many showed the bankruptcy of Tory policy. A union representative at recent meeting I attended confidently predicted that Labour would be in power in six months. That looks implausible, but the Tories could limp on like John Major’s government after Black Tuesday in 1992, before it went down to the Tories’ worst ever defeat in 1997.

It’s a bit shocking to think back to last April, when Theresa May called the election. It looked like a stroke of genius. Labour had some of their worst ever poll ratings and looked hollowed out after their internal struggles. But it wasn’t just that. It also looked clever to go to the electorate then, because the next few years were going to be rough going for the government. Brexit was looking very messy, and the short term economic outlook looked dire – especially if the government stuck to the fiscal conservatism that has been their hallmark. Now the party has lost its parliamentary majority, tarnished its brand, and rescued Labour from oblivion. And prospects for Brexit and the economy look just as difficult as before – worse.  I can only guess at the trauma Tory supporters must be feeling.

There has been some predictable lashing out. Tories cannot bear to give Labour’s leadership credit for anything, so they blame their own side for the calamity. Mrs May is regarded as a dire leader; the campaign is written off as the most dismal in history. And yet they won 43% of the vote, the highest since 1987, and their poll ratings were remarkably stable through the campaign. Still, many of the decisions taken by the Conservatives during the campaign look ill-advised in hindsight. A lot of the problem was that the calling of the election was so sudden. There was no time to put together the type of campaign infrastructure that was in place 2015. They lacked good quality campaign intelligence, and failed to see how the battleground was moving. The political environment, after Brexit and Corbyn, is radically different from that of 2015, and yet the Tory campaign theme – “strong and stable” versus “coalition of chaos” – was much the same. This points to a deeper weakness: the party lacks a strong army of volunteers to fight a ground campaign. So it badly needs the advantages that money and a long lead time can buy – and they need to identify the right constituencies and voters to target. It’s clear they were focusing their efforts on the wrong people time.

I have made a comparison before between Theresa May and John Major. Mr Major was a lacklustre leader, who experienced an initial honeymoon when he took over in 1990. He did not call a snap election, but pulled off a narrow but unexpected victory in 1992, after a dismal campaign. He had a bit of a second honeymoon, but it all came tumbling down on 16 September 1992, Black Tuesday, when Sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, shattering Mr Major’s economic strategy. It made no difference that he kept going for over 4 years more with a pretty decent economic record – he and his party’s credibility was shot, and the country was only waiting for somebody to put them out of their misery.

Does the Grenfell Tower fire provide a similar, seminal moment, to follow the failed election itself? There are clear signs of government failure, and Mrs May’s slow reaction showed a massive lack of political judgment by her and her advisers. The official neglect that led to a tragedy on this scale goes back much longer than when Conservative austerity started in 2010, but many of the things Conservatives have been saying about cutting public services and regulation resonate badly.

But, like John Major, I suspect the government will be quite successful at limping on. Only Labour currently wants another election, and they do not have enough parliamentary muscle to force one, nor sufficient political skill to engineer one. Also Mrs May herself looks quite secure for now; each of her potential replacements brings problems with them. Personally I think that the Chancellor Philip Hammond would do a much better job, but he would be distrusted as a more open Europhile. If there had been a strong field of potential leaders, Mrs May would not have walked into her job so easily. Just as nobody could replace Mr Major.

But the Conservatives are vulnerable. Brexit makes the short-term economic prospects look weak – undermining their reputation for economic competence. The lower pound is squeezing what people have to spend; business investment is blighted by uncertainty. A good moment for higher public investment in infrastructure and public services? But that would require the import of a lot of foreign skilled workers (and no doubt quite a few unskilled ones) just as Brexit makes life uncertain for the most readily available people. It may or may not be fair to put a faltering economy down to Brexit (it may have been coming anyway), but it is hard for the government to blame anything else, when the most plausible alternative is their own incompetence. And public services, such as education and health (to say nothing of social housing) are becoming stretched to the point of being politically toxic.

But for the Conservatives to be beaten, it takes somebody to deliver the blow. In 1997 that was Tony Blair, who built up the most ruthlessly effective political machine Britain has ever seen. Labour are confident that the spirit of hope and optimism spelt out in their manifesto will convince enough extra voters to give them a try this time. They have plenty of enthusiastic young supporters to give them an army of foot soldiers. But they are very unlike Mr Blair’s Labour. Mr Blair moved Labour towards the Conservatives in policy terms, in a strategy that I have called “the same, only different”, and picked up many Tory voters. For Mr Corbyn’s  party, their motivation comes from a visceral hatred of the Conservatives and all they stand for. Their policy programme is full of contradictions, not least on Brexit, and would wilt under close scrutiny. This time they succeeded because nobody thought they could win. I can’t believe they will be able to deliver a knock-out blow. Challenges built on populist anger can gain momentum (look at Donald Trump and Brexit), but they provoke opposition, and it is very hard for them to get enough votes to secure more than a narrow victory in a parliamentary election. And the electoral system does not favour Labour either.

The alternative is that a new political force is able to grow and deliver the blow, as Emmanuel Macron has in France, drawing support from both right and left. The Liberal Democrats hope to be that force, but at best they can only be part of it. This new force needs defections from both the big parties, and some people new to politics too. And there needs to be a leader. Is there anybody of the right stature around to lead it?  Maybe somebody will emerge, as Tony Blair did. I can’t help thinking of David Miliband. Vince Cable, who looks likely to be the next Lib Dem leader, has a better chance than the current leader, Tim Farron, of drawing support across party lines.

But for that to happen, Labour will have to start falling apart. This is possible. The hard left looks is continuing its takeover of the party machinery. Mr Corbyn has made no gestures of reconciliation to his party’s centrists. But it will take more than driving out a few tainted centrists to break Labour’s momentum – something has to puncture the enthusiasm of Labour’s activist base, who now have a taste for successful campaigning. Perhaps only power will puncture Mr Corbyn’s bubble. Labour might be too weak to beat the Conservatives, even when they are vulnerable. But they may yet be too strong to allow anybody else to.

And that is the best hope for Conservatives. British politics is volatile. Their luck could yet turn.

 

Hubris wrecked Theresa May. Will it do for Jeremy Corbyn too?

Labour did not win Britain’s General Election. Indeed Jeremy Corbyn’s party did no better than Gordon Brown’s in 2010. And yet Mr Corbyn has every right to be pleased with himself. His party burst through all expectations and is now within shouting distance of power. They did this with an innovative campaign that has changed the face of British politics. And yet their hold remains fragile.

I still have to pinch myself that Labour have done as well as they have. I really did not believe that they could take back the seat of Battersea, where I live,  from the Tories. Their campaign was weak, and their candidate locally unknown; they put in a fraction of the effort they did in 2015. As a resident the only party I heard from was, in fact, the Liberal Democrats (whose vote increased quite respectably) – as well as the independent candidate.

In my last post I attributed Labour success to three things: pushing back the Lib Dems and Greens; taking votes from Ukip; and drawing in new voters, especially younger ones. Subsequent evidence suggest I may have overdone the Ukip component – but that quite a few older, Tory voters stayed at home. The point is that Labour did everything except tackling the middle-England voters who voted Tory in 2015, and whom people like me said were the party’s only route back to success. And that, ultimately, was why Labour still lost.

The most positive thing about Labour’s campaign was the successful way they drew in younger voters who had previously not voted, right up to people in their 40s. This clearly had a powerful political effect, to the detriment of both the Conservatives (including in Battersea) and the Lib Dems (in seats like Nick Clegg’s Sheffield seat). Politicians have too easily neglected this segment of the population, while lavishing benefits on older voters, who turn out in greater numbers. The hope is that once people have been drawn it to vote once, they will repeat the experience – especially since their intervention made a difference this time. This needs to be qualified in two ways. First: older voters are as powerful as ever. It was the Conservatives that tried to challenge this group, and that proved costly, even decisive. Labour pandered to both ends of the spectrum. The second is that Labour’s most eye-catching policy to appeal to younger voters was the abolition of university tuition fees. It will be very hard for them to wriggle out of that policy in future. But it will have all sorts of adverse consequences, from diverting resources from poorer people (both services and benefits) to restricting the funding and independence of universities.

A second positive thing was that finally the stranglehold of the tabloid press seems to have been broken.  In 1992 The Sun newspaper took credit for an unexpected Conservative victory, following a campaign of vilification of Labour’s then leader, Neil Kinnock – and few disagreed. Although newspaper readership is falling, it is striking how mainstream television news often takes a lead from the press. This is very evident from the often bizarre prioritisation of news stories on BBC Radio 4, for example. But many people now get their news from elsewhere, and are used to challenging the line put out by the “mainstream media”. The press is responsible for a whole series of myths and lies about politics (the scale of foreign aid, the impact of immigrants, and so on), so this is positive. Unfortunately its diminishment is not in itself a blow for truth. For example I heard people suggesting the Mr Corbyn was much readier to mix with the public than Mrs May, and yet Mr Corbyn’s audiences were almost as controlled. The left sustains its own fictional world.

Perhaps what surprised me most of all was the success of Labour’s manifesto. I dismissed it as an incoherent set of policies designed to please a series of vocal interest groups. It was not a serious programme for government, and was not economically credible (even if you accept that the government can run a much bigger budget deficit that most people currently think). And yet many voters were happy to find something they liked in it, and put an optimistic gloss on the rest. To me the most remarkable endorsement came from the economist Joseph Stiglitz. Mr Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate and wrote the textbook I used when studying public economics. Having read the manifesto itself, I can see that I was being less than fair. I wasn’t actually wrong in my comments, but I underrated its positive narrative. People were able to project their hopes onto it. They were able to seize on a few things they liked, and take the rest on trust. One striking feature was that it left very little money to reverse Tory benefits cuts, or even for them to keep pace with inflation. But nobody really believed that Mr Corbyn would let claimants down so thoroughly.

But it does seem that British voters don’t like tough choices. The best way to win votes is to make undeliverable promises, such as the one made by Brexit campaigners that leaving the EU would be costless. By contrast Mrs May’s more challenging manifesto was a failure; there were a lot of nasty things in it, but that isn’t what really cost her the votes – it was her attempt to limit the state’s largess to older voters, something that will have to be tackled eventually. This is a less positive development for British politics.

More positive, is that it looks as if televised leaders’ debates are here to stay. By steering clear of such debates, Mrs May was only following standard professional advice that such debates are simply a risk to front-runners. But Mr Corbyn’s last minute move to join the debate with all party leaders was a masterstroke, and one that I suspect lost the election for Mrs May – it badly damaged her already fading brand, which was the central focus of the Conservative campaign. Failure to attend such a debate suggests that a party leader is not up to the job. Now that two-party politics has returned (in the conventional wisdom, if not in fact), we might even get a two leader face-off in future as a permanent fixture. These debates may be theatrical nonsense, but they are a good way of securing public engagement in the electoral process and so a positive thing.

Now that Mrs May seems to be coming unstuck, after placing such a massive bet on her own personal brand, Labour are within striking distance of power. They have already taken a poll lead. But they should beware for three reasons.

First is that, as my last post pointed out, the world of two-party politics is no easier than the multi-party one. Labour now needs to get into the upper 40s of vote-share to win (the electoral system is tilted against them). That means appealing to voters who voted Conservative last time, something they have studiously avoided trying to do until now.

Second is that their manifesto will prove a problem as a template for government. It does too much for some interest groups (e.g. students) and not enough for others (benefit claimants). Labour successfully appealed to both sides of the Brexit argument at once. . it is based on an economic idea that growth is based purely on the quantity of investment, and independent of the ease of doing business. Resources are always limited, and choices always have to be made; Labour shows no preparedness for that eventuality.

And third, doubts about Mr Corbyn’s leadership remain. He had a good campaign, doing things we already knew he does well – it is how he got to be Labour leader, after all. And yet his grasp of man-management and administration has been shown to be weak. These weaknesses are bound to re-emerge, as will power struggles within the Labour Party, which he has been unable to handle.

None of this will necessarily stop Mr Corbyn from winning another election, given the disarray of the Tories, and the lack of challenge from elsewhere. After all Francois Hollande won the French presidency in 2012 on a similar basis. But that led to the collapse of his party. Labour supporters should remember that not long ago Theresa May looked unassailable, but that hubris undid her. Now I see some of that some hubris coming from Mr Corbyn’s side. They should beware.

Is Theresa May the new John Major?

Well if I was ever under the illusion that I had any special insights into Britain’s general election campaign, it is now banished. Last week I described the improvement in Labour’s poll ratings as a “dead cat bounce”. It is clearly much more than that. As the election goes into its last lap, it is going to be a lot more interesting.

So what happened? The truth is that we don’t quite know. After the pause caused by the Manchester outrage, we now have a series of new opinion polls, confirming an improvement in Labour’s position. It has advanced to an average of 35% according to Wikipedia, a remarkable achievement when you consider they started the campaign at 25%. Where has this come from? The Conservative poll share has eased by a couple of points to about 44%, but it is still better than where they started, before they mugged Ukip. The position of both the Lib Dems and the Greens has fallen back, as has the SNP in Scotland, though Ukip has struck bottom now. The headline figures are easy enough to see, but what really lies behind the shifts is much harder to say, as is their impact on individual races for seats.

But confidence in the Conservative campaign has been shaken, and Labour is being given more credit. It is particularly striking that Manchester has not helped Theresa May, as most campaigners from both sides thought it would. Indeed the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seized the initiative on Friday by pointing to the alleged failure of British foreign policy to make the world safer, and how police cuts have made things worse. Both points are spurious. Jihadi terrorism has struck Germany and Belgium, countries with a notably more pacific foreign policy than Britain’s. Britain’s interventions are an excuse for the terrorists, and not the real reason – which is hatred for the godless western way of life and a liberal attitude to women. And the security services have been lavished with funds – it is friendly neighbourhood policing that has been hammered – and the effect of that on terrorism is unclear. Never mind; Mr Corbyn delivered his speech in a measured, sober fashion (prime ministerial, I am tempted to say), and both arguments resonated with the public, who are not inclined to trust the political establishment. The Tory response was unmemorable.

This points to an important weakness in the Tory campaign. It is completely and utterly centred on the person of Mrs May, who they then proceed to shield from public interaction. While Mr Corbyn was delivering his speech, Mrs May was hobnobbing with world leaders at a couple of world summits. In itself this sort of distraction is considered to be a positive by campaigners, a chance to look like a world leader in power, but she had nobody of stature left on the home front. And the media were not inclined to give her party an easy ride.

That has to do with a second weakness. Mrs May is not a collegiate leader. Her pronouncements emerge from a small cabal of trusted advisers, without the ground being prepared amongst her colleagues and their media contacts. So it doesn’t take much for the grumbling to start, and this makes good copy. And the grumbling is in full flow. One columnist said that Mrs May had the charisma of an Indesit fridge-freezer. More than one has suggested that this is the most dismal Tory election campaign ever.

I wouldn’t say that. To me that record is held by John Major, both in 1992 (which won unexpectedly) and 1997 (the worst Tory defeat in history). The 1992 election is the better comparison to now. Mr Major was an uncharismatic sort, and he tried to make a virtue of it. He was never able to stamp his authority on his party. I remember thinking in the early stages of the 1992 campaign that the Tories did not look as if they even wanted to win. They were saved by events. The first was a triumphalist rally in Sheffield by the Labour leader Neil Kinnock, which was a disastrous misreading of the zeitgeist. And second was combative last minute switch in the Conservative campaign based on “Labour’s tax bombshell”, one of the most effective general election moves I can remember – which stops me rating the campaign as a whole the direst in Tory history (1997 takes that prize).

That gives two clues as to how the Conservatives can pull the campaign back to the massive landslide we expected at the start. First is the public not liking the prospect of Labour as a government rather than as a protest vote. Mr Kinnock was not considered Prime Ministerial. Second, is through a well-designed and aggressive drive by the Conservatives and their media allies against Labour weaknesses, perhaps on economics or perhaps on national security, in the remaining ten days.

We’ll see. Things could go well for Labour if we see a repeat of the anti-establishment mood evident in the Brexit referendum last year, or in Donald Trump’s victory in the US. “Strong and stable” could have been a campaign slogan for Hillary Clinton – but Mr Trump was able to project enough of an aura of competence to persuade enough people to give him a try – based on his supposed success as a businessman, and his success in getting to be the Republican nominee. Mr Corbyn is exceeding expectations in his campaigning skill, and he comes over as the more straightforward and honest politician compared to Mrs May. So you never know…

And what of my party, the Liberal Democrats? There is good an bad news. The good news is that knocking the shine off Mrs May helps in contests against the Conservatives. The bad news is that in the general polling the party has faded, and the gap between it and the Conservatives is as large as ever. The idea that the party is a more credible opposition than Labour has gained no traction. A good election for Jeremy Corbyn may be good for the Lib Dems strategically, but a failure to progress will pose some very challenging questions for the party.

Meanwhile I will be scouring the media for any evidence I can find as to how the election is developing. I have not got a clear picture yet. But if Theresa May fails to get a convincing majority, she will have nowhere to hide, and her authority would be damaged irreparably. And deservedly so.

Don’t underestimate Theresa May – but the Lib Dems will play a critical role in this election

Today Theresa May announced her intention to hold a General Election in Britain on 8 June. She is certain to get her way, notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Personally I’m not happy – this is an unwelcome distraction from other things I need to do – and my post on mental health has been swamped. Unable to concentrate on much else, I’m going to post again.

The first thing that strikes me is that British politics is littered with people that have underestimated our Prime Minister. This election was an almost total surprise. Rumours had circulated earlier in the year of a a General Election, but faded when it was clear it would not be on the first Thursday in May, which has now become the traditional date for elections in Britain. (A practice established by John Major in 1992, and only broken in 2001 because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. But before that Margaret Thatcher preferred June elections, a parallel that will no doubt please Mrs May). This surprise shows how tight a ship she runs compared to her ill-fated Labour predecessor Gordon Brown, whose career had otherwise had some striking parallels. Mr Brown’s reputation was destroyed because he let speculation about an early election get out of hand, and then lost his nerve.

The second striking thing is how unusual it is for us to have a snap election in the UK. Until now Prime Ministers have waited until the fourth or fifth year of parliament’s term. The date has been widely known well in advance (though in the case of the four year terms favoured by Tony Blair and Mrs Thatcher, not for certain), allowing for a lot of pre planning. We have to go back to 1974 for one like this one, unless you count 1979, when the Callaghan government was brought down by a vote of no confidence less than six months before its term had run. And even the 1974 parallels aren’t that strong. This is uncharted territory. The parties will be fighting with much less pre-planning. The campaign could be much more chaotic than the carefully choreographed ones we have been used to.

Politically the election is dominated by the weakness of the Labour Party. Already demolished by the SNP in Scotland, it shows no signs of recovery there, and looks very vulnerable everywhere else. Its opinion poll ratings are very low – about half the Conservative vote. I have not seen any analysis of what this means in terms of the party’s vulnerability in particular seats. It has a large number of very safe seats, so it might well hang on in lots of places, while doing catastrophically in Middle England.  The party has two huge problems. The first is that the political agenda is clearly on Brexit, where its message is weak – it will not be rewarded for reflecting the confusion that much of the voting public has on the topic. Much as it would like to move the debate on to austerity, where cuts are now looking quite alarming in places, this looks like a doomed enterprise. And that is because of their second major problem: a spectacularly inept leader in Jeremy Corbyn. By itself this ineptitude is not fatal – after all he has done well in Labour’s internal elections – but the public don’t see him as a prime minister in waiting. Time an again that has proved a fatal handicap at election time. Without that credibility Labour can’t change the agenda.

So the Conservatives are looking confident. It seems that their key electoral message is that Britain needs a strong government right now, regardless off what that government actually plans to do. But the messaging will not have been exhaustively tested, so we don’t know how this will actually play. It seems clear that they will be able to beat off any threat from Ukip, but they may find it harder to manage the Lib Dems.

The Lib Dems are in a very interesting position. Most people considered them wiped out after the last general election in 2015, when they were punished for having been in coalition with the Conservatives. But the Brexit referendum result has energised the party. It has now reliably retrieved third place in the opinion polls (though still only half of even Labour’s disastrous score), and its membership is booming. It has a clear position on Brexit. The Tory strategy in 2015 was mainly to destroy their coalition allies – on the principle that you should always go for the weakest opponent first. That meant they won many more seats from them than they did from Labour. But holding those seats could be tricky, since the messages that worked so well in 2015, which relied on a strong Labour threat, lack punch now -and the Tories are unlikely to have the same organisational strength, since this is a snap election.

So the Lib Dems could make a big comeback. Big enough to stop the Conservatives from getting a majority? Almost nobody would suggest that. The closer the party gets to achieving that aim, the more powerful the Conservative message about strong government will become. But after the last year we have started to expect the unexpected. The Tories will make little headway in Scotland (even though they now outpoll Labour there). They may find that taking many seats from Labour means going deep into their strongholds. Their high poll rating could simply mean piling up votes in seats they have already won.

So, much as I find this election personally unwelcome, it will be an interesting one to watch. My hunch is that the Conservatives will end the election in much the same place that they started it – but with fewer Labour seats and more Lib Dem ones on the opposition benches. But am I making the fatal sin of underestimating Theresa May?

Labour shows the problem with a core vote strategy

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Last week’s British by-elections prompt me to make one of my occasional posts. It is about the bizarre predicament of Britain’s Labour Party and the wider question this poses for the British left.

The first thing to say about Labour is that I am not a neutral observer. As a supporter of the Liberal Democrats I have endured near continuous vitriol from Labour supporters, especially since the coalition government of 2010. It doesn’t help that these Labourites were right to predict disaster for my party – against my constant efforts to look on the bright side. So I take some satisfaction in being right this time. I cannot deny a sense of schadenfreude. Perhaps it takes a victim of delusion to recognise the phenomenon in others – though to be fair quite a few Labourites are in despair rather than delusion.

The immediate fuss is over Labour’s loss to the Conservatives of the Copeland by-election. For an opposition party to lose a seat in these circumstances is nearly unprecedented. Labour did see off a challenge from Ukip in the Stoke by-election on the same day – but they cannot take much comfort from that. Their vote fell, and they only retained the seat because Ukip and the Tories split the anti-Labour vote between them. It was a bit like the Lib Dem by election win in Eastleigh during the coalition, though the margin was much better.

But this fuss is a bit overdone. The main news politically is that Ukip is on the back foot, and the Conservatives seem to be picking up much of their vote. That’s still a big problem for Labour, though: while seeing off a threat from Ukip, the threat from the Tories has become much deadlier.

But the by-elections are only the start of it. It is Labour’s complete lack of political effectiveness since Jeremy Corbyn took over that is behind the criticism. Labour are totally unable to exploit the government’s difficulties over Brexit – a political gift that most opposition parties can only dream of. Just compare the party’s performance to that under John Smith and Tony Blair as the Conservative government pushed through the Maastricht treaty in the 1990s. Labour was then able to put aside its own differences and ambiguities over Europe to harry the Conservatives to near political death. This was an object the lesson in how to be on both sides of the argument at once – one of the chief skills in politics. Labour could unite pro and anti Brexit forces by rallying round a form of soft Brexit – and using every opportunity in Parliament to make the government’s life difficult. Instead Labour’s opposition sounds like whingeing Islington dinner table chat.

And what about opposition to austerity? The government is pressing ahead with cuts, and seems unable to handle a crisis in the NHS and social care. Schools are now under threat. Austerity was supposed to be the rallying cry for Labour under Mr Corbyn, and the basis of a popular revolt – with determined resistance both inside and outside parliament. Labour was going to employ high quality economic minds to develop an alternative narrative. Instead, Labour contents itself with more quiet whingeing, and austerity has dropped way down the list of politically current issues. The economic thinkers who had been commissioned to help the party have been sent on their way.

And Scotland? There was supposed to be a fightback here – but instead the party has fallen back to third place. At his speech to the Scottish Labour conference this weekend Mr Corbyn undermined the Labour’s Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, who is attempting to recapture the political initiative from the SNP with a call for a UK wide constitutional convention. Unable to come up with strong political initiatives himself, Mr Corbyn undermines any attempts to do so from anybody else. Politically Labour has stalled.

But a recent poll revealed something quite interesting. It confirmed Labour’s poor standing amongst the country at large, and the lack of confidence in Mr Corbyn, which is felt by over three quarters of the electorate, with remarkably few don’t knows. But among Labour’s remaining supporters, Mr Corbyn has majority support. His position looks secure.

And this reveals a problem for Labour, and the political left generally, that goes beyond Mr Corbyn’s profound lack of political competence. It is the temptation to retreat into your own comfort zone. For Labour, this process started under Ed Miliband, Mr Corbyn’s predecessor. It took the form of the so-called 35% strategy – whereby Labour was supposed to secure power by consolidating its position amongst left-leaning voters, especially those that had supported the Lib Dems, without having to persuade voters that had voted Conservative. They were relying on the idea that the right of centre vote would be split between the Tories, Ukip and coalition-supporting Lib Dems – and hoping that non-voters would rally to the party too. It left them helpless against a surging SNP in Scotland, and an entirely predictable and ruthless Tory campaign to pressure Lib Dem and Ukip voters in marginal seats.

But the idea of staying within your political comfort zone is enticing. The Liberal Democrats are now taking this up under the guise of a “core vote strategy”. This is designed to attract loyal supporters rather than marginal votes. This is more rational for the Lib Dems than it is for Labour, given how low the party’s fortunes have sunk. But neither party will pose a serious challenge to the Tories unless it works out how to appeal to marginal voters too. And neither will they be able to achieve this by forming some form of “progressive” alliance between themselves, with or without the Greens and the SNP.

And that will mean taking core supporters out of their comfort zone. Just where is open for debate. Conventional wisdom has it that this must mean embracing elements of what the left calls “neo-liberalism” – such as marketising public services and holding taxes and public spending down. This isn’t necessarily the case – but the electorate will not be convinced by the traditional left wing idea of accruing power to the centre and declaring “trust us: we are the people.” Political power is not trusted enough for that.

Personally I think Labour needs to embrace devolution of real political power to regions, municipalities and even neighbourhoods, even when it means passing it to opposition parties. This should involve a new constitutional settlement (just as Ms Dugdale advocates). And it includes breaking up central control of such hallowed institutions as the NHS and national public sector deals with trade unions. For Lib Dems I suspect it means developing a new narrative on rights – and the idea that key economic rights (as opposed to basic human rights) must be earned by contribution and residency, rather than being open to all comers. Also the parry’s doctrinaire line on the right to privacy needs to be rethought for the modern age – it feels too much like yesterday’s battle. Both parties needs to break out of the strait-jacket of political correctness and victim culture – while continuing to promote inclusion. And both parties need to think about a future Europe, rather than retreat into its past.

But once the left moves out of its comfort zone, power is there for the taking. The conservative coalition is not robust, and demographics are against it. Brexit will place huge strains on it. Populism will fail. But, alas, there are few signs that the left yet understands what it needs to do.  It may take another disaster.

The Labour Party is not dying, but it is in retreat

To judge by the stories coming up in my Facebook feed, you would think that Britain’s Labour Party was in its death throes. The party is further away from winning national power than ever, but it is far from dying. Something more subtle is happening.

The chatter arises from the two most recent parliamentary by-elections, where Labour’s vote has crashed. I have written about Richmond Park already – this was a straightforward squeeze to get the Tory out. A week later came Sleaford and North Hykeham – and this is much harder to explain away. This is a safe Conservative seat in Lincolnshire, which voted heavily for Brexit (unlike Richmond Park).  The Conservatives lost a couple of percent in vote share, but Labour crashed by 7% to 10%, from second to fourth place behind Ukip (whose vote share fell by 2%) and the Lib Dems (who increased by 5% to 11%). Various other candidates scooped up an unusually large 11% (up 5%), including a Lincolnshire Independent who took nearly 9%.

The first thing to say about this result is that it is a remarkable victory for the Conservatives, a year and a half into this parliament. While Whitney and Richmond Park showed that pro Remain voters distrust the party, in pro Brexit seats (which are in a hefty majority in England and Wales) there seems to be no problem. It seems likely that they are picking up votes from Ukip, while losing a few Remainers to the Lib Dems. This seems to explain Ukip’s lacklustre performance in what should be home territory for them. But Ukip and the independents clearly picked up votes from Labour.

And thus come the predictions of Labour’s demise. Their lack of a clear message on Brexit, the main issue in British politics for the foreseeable future means that they are being squeezed by both the Lib Dems and Ukip, and will not be able to hold the line between the two. Voters sceptical of Brexit will be attracted to the Lib Dems; enthusiasts for Brexit will be tempted by Ukip or the Conservatives. Meanwhile Labour members’ attention is being drawn by its internal politics, as far left activists led by Momentum, fresh from their victory of re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as their leader, try to take control at all levels, and dictate the candidate selection process. The spectre of the party repeating the collapse it has already suffered in Scotland in England is raised. Amidst all the chatter, though, it was instructive to read Andrew Rawnsley in the Guardian. He describes how Labour veterans are consolidating their hold on the Labour organisation through solid, grassroots organisation. Momentum, an awkward alliance of veteran hard leftists (many expelled from Labour) and younger idealists freshly recruited to politics, is, in fact, losing momentum. Internal splits within the pressure group have been widely reported.

The truth is that in much of the country, Labour does not face a serous political challenge, and in a few places it is mounting a serious challenge to the Conservatives. The threat from from the Lib Dems is grossly exaggerated. The Lib Dems have barely begun to claw back their standing amongst both metropolitan leftists (who will not forgive the coalition with the Conservatives and the breaking of the party’s pledge on tuition fees) and working class voters of all ethnic groups. Richmond Park showed that such voters may once more hold their noses and vote tactically for the Lib Dems, but this logic does not affect areas where Labour is already strong. The Lib Dems seem to be mainly picking up Conservative Remainers – and that may help Labour rather than hinder it. Certainly in the area of London where I live the Lib Dem revival, such as it is, is evident in Tory areas, and there is no evidence of it all in the poorer estates.

Ukip threatens more, with an appeal to white working class voters, an important part of the Labour coalition. Labour seems unable to craft a message that appeals to these voters, or not without upsetting other important parts of the coalition, such as ethnic minority voters and metropolitan liberals. But Ukip is not a well-organised party. It lacks maturity. Furthermore its culture celebrates the awkward squad – the oddballs and angry types – from which it is hard to forge a cooperative team, as can be seen from the farcical attempts to replace Nigel Farage as leader. Liberals have a big advantage here – having a predilection to listen and cooperate. Ukip’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, is rightly focusing on Labour voters, but delivering a credible challenge will be an uphill struggle. They do not remotely present the scale of threat to Labour as the SNP have in Scotland.

And we must remember that Labour remains strong in large parts of the country, particularly London. They have plenty of members, strong local party organisations, and councillors. They have the ability to reach out to voters person to person to establish local bonds of trust. The party was not strong in either Sleaford or Richmond Park, so the results in these seats say little about how the party will perform in its strongholds. Around where I live the party is comfortably winning the local by-elections – and is as strong as I have seen it in 25 years or so.

So Labour is long way from dying. But it does seem to be in retreat in areas where it was not so strong in the first place. The Lib Dems do seem to be picking up here, resuming their role as the main challengers to the Conservatives in rural areas, to judge by a steady record of success in local by-elections (with another good set of results last night). As last week’s Bagehot column in the Economist points out, Britain’s political geography is fragmenting, with the country becoming a patchwork of different political contests. Labour will find it very hard to break out of its strongholds, as Lib Dems, Ukip and the SNP consolidate their hold on other areas.

Can Labour break out of this dynamic and regain a national appeal? It has been done before, in the 1990s by Tony Blair. The party’s current leadership, hopes to do so, with a re-launch promised. It hopes to pick up on an anti-establishment mood, using Mr Corbyn’s  persona and a left-wing policy platform. We will see. Labour’s problem is less its policies than a perceived lack of competence, something that Mr Corbyn’s persona will do nothing to correct. The public may yet be attracted to radical left-wing policies in these strange times – but the platform is being developed in a process of members talking to themselves (which activists optimistically regard as “democracy”) rather than engagement with a sceptical public.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives have little to worry about from Labour. Their main worry is the internal tensions in their party arising from Brexit – a process that will be quite unable to sustain the expectations placed on it. As doubts over Brexit grow, the party’s support is bound to melt. That will be the big political opportunity. The Lib Dems and even Ukip are readying themselves for that moment. There is little evidence that Labour are. But the party is far from dying.