Theresa May is channelling Nick Clegg

I read somewhere this week that the Conservative Party gathering in Manchester felt like a “Potemkin conference”. It had all the forms of a party conference, with hordes of journalists and lobbyists, but few actual members. That reminded me of something: Liberal Democrat conferences during the coalition era of 2010 to 2015. So, after comparing Jeremy Corbyn to Margaret Thatcher, an ideological leader who had a shaky start before eventually becoming dominant, this time I will compare the Conservative leader and Prime Minster Theresa May to Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister during the coalition.

Nick (I usually use first names for members of my own party) was little known to the public before he burst onto the scene in the 2010 General Election. His performance in the leader debate astounded people, and led to a brief moment of Cleggmania, in which the party stormed up the polls. A concerted press campaign, and a late rally by Gordon Brown’s Labour Party, brought him down to earth somewhat. But the party did well enough to enter coalition with the Conservatives. That was a heady moment for the party; we had hardly dare hope that the party could enter government, and that some of our colleagues would be cabinet ministers. This looked to be another important step towards the party taking its place at the top table of British politics. But that was a serious misreading of the situation. Large numbers of supporters were outraged, support plummeted and membership drained away. And yet the party retained all the outward forms of success, including those Potemkin conferences. Insiders talked up the party’s prospects with various arguments about historical precedent, real achievements and the need for a centre party. But nobody outside the party was fooled. Nick limped on as captain of a sinking ship; nobody wanted to replace him, and a change of leadership looked too risky. The party’s collapse was confirmed in the 2015 General Election.

Theresa May too burst onto the scene suddenly, after the EU referendum did for her predecessor David Cameron, and one by one her rivals for the leadership were sabotaged. Her honeymoon lasted much longer than Nick’s. But then came that fatal moment of hubris when she called an early election. At first it looked a brilliant move that would usher in an era of Tory domination of parliamentary politics, and her personal authority would be unchallenged. The speed with which she fell apart staggered everybody. Suddenly the Conservative Party looks vulnerable: on the wrong side of history and, to mix metaphors, lacking the will to fight its way of the cul-de-sac it finds itself in. The party is haemorrhaging members. It all reminds me of Nick Clegg’s fall from grace in a few weeks in 2010. The Tories cling to power; they try to convince themselves that things aren’t as bad as they look; but to outsiders they look doomed. Only Labour can save them. But they can carry on in this living-dead state for years, just like the Lib Dems in coalition. Or John Major after Black Wednesday in 1992.

But wait, are things really that bad for the Tories? Their poll standing has not collapsed, unlike the Lib Dems after 2010; Labour’s lead is a narrow one – and not enough for that party to win a majority. Labour aren’t following Tony Blair’s strategy of pitching for the centre ground – instead they are trying to present a radical alternative. That gives the Tories more air to breathe. There is a potentially winning coalition of working class Brexit supporters, middle class conservatives, and private sector workers worried about Labour. That was Mrs May’s strategy in the Spring, and it looked like a winning one then. But there are three huge problems for the Tories.

The first is Brexit. After the referendum the party had little choice but to take ownership of it. But there is no coherent plan for Brexit; if there had been such a plan it would have given the remainers something solid to attack, and surely they would have won. There is no political majority to be forged for any particular vision of life after exit. Meanwhile Brexit will take the blame for everything that goes wrong in the country for the next decade, regardless of whether that is true or not. British politics is stuck between two incoherent camps who can each prevent the other from ruling effectively. And disruptive change is inevitable. Since hanging on to the certainties of the status quo is usually any government’s best defence, it is fatally undermined. And Labour’s radicalism doesn’t look so bad compared to the crazy talk of the more radical wing pro-Brexit Tories, such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Jacob Rees-Mogg. This looks a hard situation for even the most capable government to handle.

The second problem for the Tories is demographics. Mrs May’s potentially winning coalition is a shrinking one – it depends disproportionately on older, white voters. And on people who own their own homes. But the proportion of such people is shrinking relentlessly. Somehow the party needs to break out of this bind to appeal to younger voters, and those renting their homes. Mrs May seems to understand this, but has little idea how to do it without putting off the party’s core support. A few gestures about building more houses will not be enough.

And thirdly there is the party itself. It has been shrinking for some time. There is a story circulating that its rank and file membership is now smaller than even the Lib Dems, who have seen a membership surge since 2015. No doubt fear of Labour will keep money flowing into the party – but a political campaign based on money rather than grassroots support is a fragile thing. Mr Cameron’s success in 2015 took years of careful preparation; the absence of such preparation was painfully apparent in the Tory campaign this year. And yet the party now lacks the stability and consistency of leadership needed for such planning to work. Things are hardly better when looking at the party’s elite: its parliamentary party. Mrs May is a gritty and determined leader, but lacks political skill, and her authority is shot. But her main rival, Boris Johnson, looks a more effective rebel than a leader. He showed no great skill or leadership in his role as Mayor for London, which is hardly the most demanding of jobs. In Lib Dem terms he is Tim Farron to Mrs May’s Nick Clegg (though, I need to add, that Nick has far more political skill than Mrs May). For all Tim’s talents he fell short of what was needed for the top job. And yet four years of the party being hollowed out under Mrs May’s leadership is a pretty much a guarantee of disaster.

The Conservatives have no serious rivals on the political right. Ukip has collapsed. The Lib Dems ar interested in picking off the Conservatives’ more liberal supporters, but not its core vote. The party can surely reinvent itself – just as the Lib Dems are doing. But you can’t do that in government. Tory prospects for the next five years look dismal indeed.

 

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

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The Conservatives and Labour are not finding life easy in the world of two-party politics

First, an apology. For the last two weeks I have been on holiday, and taking a break from blogging. So an incredible two weeks, featuring not just the election, but a terrorist attack in a place that I frequent, and the Grenfell Tower disaster, has passed without comment. Never mind the continued ascent of Emmanuel Macron in France and the scarcely believable goings on in America. I like my blog to be reflective rather than provide an instant reaction, but this has been taking it a bit far! I must start the catch-up by taking a first look at that British election.

The Conservative campaign was constructed, initially anyway, by their adviser Lynton Crosby, who achieved hero status after the unexpected success of his campaign in 2015. It was a plan based heavily on what has happened in previous elections, and, doubtless, informed about current voter feelings through focus groups and opinion polls. In the usual modern language, this was very “evidence-based”. People expected it to do very well based on two bits of received wisdom. First was that most people have already made up their minds at the start of a campaign, so the Tory lead of over 20% in the opinion polls would not change that much. Second was that perceptions of party leaders heavily influence election outcomes: and Theresa May showed an apparently unassailable leader over Jeremy Corbyn. What could possibly go wrong? It looked a perfectly sound decision to me.

Both of those bits of wisdom, for all the evidence backing them up, proved wrong. And so Mr Crosby’s reputation  has probably been trashed. The more reflective will point out that this is jumping to conclusions. The Tory campaign secured a huge Conservative vote – 42% on an increased turnout, a figure that barely moved as the campaign progressed. The problem was that they failed to contain Labour. And that was not all Mr Crosby’s fault.

How did Labour do so well? They increased their share of the vote by about 15% as the campaign progressed to reach an astonishing 40%. This increase seems to have had three sources, of roughly equal importance. First was from Lib Dem and Green voters, who took a strong dislike to the Conservative campaign, and saw voting Labour as the best way of stopping them. Second was Ukip voters; Ukip collapsed by about 11% since 2015. The early evidence, from local elections in May in particular, was that this was overwhelmingly in favour of the Tories. That may have been the case initially, but as the campaign progressed, Labour seems to have picked up a sizable chunk of that vote too (perhaps 5% of the 11% in the end). And the third factor was that Labour brought out a sizeable number of new, younger voters. All three of these factors was unexpected at the start of the campaign – not least by me.

Labour were rewarded for breaking with conventional wisdom, and putting together a genuinely innovative campaign. They were helped by two Tory miscalculations. One was at the heart of Mr Crosby’s strategy, which was to give Labour all the rope it needed to hang itself. They did not want to demean the Conservative brand, and Mrs May’s personal one, by tangling too closely with Labour. In particular they stood back from the leadership debates. They wanted to contrast the “strong and stable” government with the “coalition of chaos” opposing them. This seemed to be working when Labour Home Affairs lead, Diane Abbott, showed a complete lack of grip on her portfolio early in the campaign. But Labour were able to shake themselves free of that and move the campaign onto the issues they wanted to talk about – which was anything except Brexit.

The second miscalculation was the Conservative manifesto; this one cannot be put down to Mr Crosby, but to Mrs May herself, and her close cabal of advisers. They made the fatal mistake of believing their own propaganda, as published faithfully by supportive newspapers like the Daily Mail. The manifesto was a challenging one, designed to let Mrs May exploit her expected majority to maximum effect, to put her stamp permanently on British society. Notoriously this included rowing back on automatic increases to the state pension (the “triple lock”), including homes in the wealth assessments for personal care costs (referred to by opponents as “dementia tax”), and means-testing winter fuel payment to the elderly. There were minor concessions on schools funding, but there were a series of other ideas, hateful to liberals, such as the return of academic selection for state schools, and undoing advances in electoral reform (that one particularly annoyed me). And behind this was talking up the prospects of Brexit, with the bizarre slogan that “no deal would be better than a bad deal”. Remain voters are slowly coming round to Brexit, but rubbing their noses in the humiliation of it all is not sensible politics. I suspect that this manifesto was so tough because its authors felt that Tony Blair, the previous prime minister who was blessed with landslide victories, did not ask for enough, and that this hobbled his programme of public service reform. But the result was a small, but probably decisive, loss of support from older voters. This may have helped to push Ukip voters to Labour, for example; other potential Conservative voters may have stayed at home. And, of course, it helped rally opponents to back the one party that seemed capable of warding off the awful prospect of a big Conservative majority.

There is more I want to say about Labour’s successful campaign, which has really changed things. But for now I want to reflect on the remarkable return of two-party politics. In 2010 Labour and the Conservatives managed 65% of the vote between them; the share was similar in 2015, as though the Lib Dem vote collapsed, Ukip, SNP and the Greens rose. But this time the two big parties took over 82% between them. Many politicians from the main parties, and many others too in the media and in the establishment generally, have lamented the rise of third parties, complicating the choices presented to people. And yet Labour and the Conservatives are finding that it makes life no easier. In 2015 Labour’s big idea was to destroy the Lib Dems and win a majority with just 35% of the vote. But as they succeeded with the first part of this aim, other Lib Dem voters flocked to the Tories in horror. Something like that seems to have happened to Ukip voters this time. Pushing out the third parties just raises the bar to parliamentary success higher, making it yet harder to put together a winning coalition of voters.

Not so long ago the idea of two-party politics looked fragile. Both the Conservatives and Labour looked about to fall apart. Those tensions will surely re-emerge. But right now it does not look as if either the Lib Dems will revive soon, nor that a new political force will arise, as it has in France. That will probably take a national disaster. But it is easy enough to predict what that national disaster might be: Brexit. But that’s another story.

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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.

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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?

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Theresa May’s Brexit moves from tautology to oxymoron but makes the best of a bad job

An oxymoron replaces a tautology. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister is contemptuous of intellectuals that try to weave policies into a wider, coherent narrative. Instead she concentrates on a series of tasks, whose solutions may clash with one another. In her speech on Brexit last Tuesday Mrs May moved her defining slogan on from “Brexit means Brexit” to “Global Britain”. This last expression captures the essential idea that Britain can remain open to the world while being closed to it.

Predictably enough, the media coverage has been beside the point, lapping up the bait left for them left by the spin-doctors, without bothering to question the speech’s real meaning. Last week I said that the government’s strategy would be a hard Brexit via a soft one, with a General Election in between. That, more or less, is what this speech delivered.

The media has focused mainly on Mrs May’s stated destination after the exit process is complete. That was always going to be a very hard form of Brexit, given her insistance on two red lines: control over immigration of EU nationals, and escape from the jurisdiction of the European Court. This is a perfectly fair interpretation of last year’s vote. Some Brexit campaigners painted a picture of a “Norway option” of Britain staying in the Single Market while outside the political Union. But Remain campaigners, including me on many occasions, pointed out that this was nonsense. Mrs May is conceding to this obvious reality. A third red line is emerging: Britain wants to be free to negotiate separate trade deals with non-European countries, like the USA or China. So one of the main points interest of her speech was her hope that Britain could have a half-in/half-out relationship with the EU customs union. This looks very hard, but we can hardly fault it as an aspiration.

But, as I argued last week, the critical issue for Brexit is the transition, and Mrs May did have something to say about this. She talked of a “phased implementation” of Brexit: in other words, a transitional deal. She said very little about this, and nothing about how long the transitional period would be.  That is quite a big door she has left open.  This transition amounts to a soft Brexit for a limited period, and getting progressively harder over the years. This starts in 2019; there must be a General Election by May 2020, which will be quite early in the transition process. Politicians should be focusing on their stance in this election.

The strategy for Remainers who want to put off hard Brexit therefore becomes quite plain. The next parliament must prolong the transition process and renegotiate what comes afterwards. They will be caught in the same logical bind about membership of the Single Market, but they might be able to move the talk on to eventual re-entry.

But to reverse the tide of Brexit will require a shift in public opinion, with a large block of Leave supporters put off by the prospect of hard Brexit. At the moment, though, the acquiescence of Remain supporters looks more likely. This is helped by the behaviour of the UK economy since the vote. There is no sign of a serious economic impact, and forecasters are putting off their predictions of one. The chief economic effect of Brexit has been the lower pound, and this has been doing the job that advocates of floating currencies always maintained it would. Any loss of inward investment put off by Brexit has been made up for by other money tempted by the reduced price of British assets. It may be that property speculation is replacing business development and research, but in the short term what matters is the cash. And British consumers have seen no need to save more and spend less; consumer demand is robust. The balance of payments deficit may even be easing. My sense is that summer holidays in Cornwall are selling faster than usual. Britons may be worse off, but not enough for anybody to be seriously worried.

This is something of a Brexit honeymoon. When will it end? That will happen when, or if, the costs of exit become more concrete, with job losses and travel restrictions in particular. The government will, as it should, try to put these off. There will no doubt be a big focus on protecting the British motor and aerospace industries, which are particularly vulnerable. Skilful navigation of these pitfalls could head off any serious backlash – and if they do the Brexiteers will have won the economic argument, so far as most people are concerned. That may or may not happen, but for now the endless speculations of doom from the Remain camp aren’t helping; it will the fate of real businesses and jobs that will win the argument either way.

But for the time being the focus will probably move away from business. The immediate focus of negotiations will be the terms of Britain’s exit – the divorce settlement, and not the basis of the future relationship. Probably the most combustible part of this will be the status of Britons resident in other EU countries, and vice versa. So far such media attention has focused on people from EU countries living in Britain, who have become embedded in British society. Most Brexiteers feel that they should have full residency rights, but the ability of Britain’s bumbling Home Office to design a bureaucratic process that can deliver this is very much in doubt.

Actually the more politically important case is British retirees who have moved to other EU countries (Spain is especially popular) and dependent on access to local health services. The government hopes that people who moved before a cut-off date (such as the referendum date) can preserve their current status. But the situation is not symmetrical, especially when you look at individual EU members. A deal should be easy with Poland, but what has Britain to offer Spain in return for continuing to look after a community that pays few Spanish taxes and demands increasing care costs? The prospect of thousands of British retirees coming home to use an NHS struggling to recruit foreign staff cannot be inviting.

It is with such matters that the British government will become absorbed over the next two years. It will be a hard slog, but Mrs May’s plodding, practical, task-oriented, anti-intellectual approach may be just what is required. Expect many more tautologies and oxymorons.

 

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The shape of Brexit is becoming clearer. Don’t write Theresa May off.

I’ve given Brexit it a well-earned rest over the last month. It remains Britain’s leading political issue, but the commentary from all sides is completely unedifying. Remainers are mainly just whingeing, angry that we are were we are. I agree, but where next? This lets the Brexiteers off the hook: instead of being forced to be more specific about how to solve the many problems thrown up by Brexit, they can simply moan about the moaning and promote an unconsidered hard Brexit. And this is what most of them are doing, betraying a complete failure to understand the predicament that country finds itself in. Still, a little reflection shows us how things are likely to shape up.

Not that the government is giving us much clue. The Prime Minister, Theresa May is staying tight-lipped, though she has been offering hard-Brexit mood music. This is partly because that is the type of leader she is: she likes to weigh things up in private before committing herself, a characteristic that she shares with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That Mrs Merkel is one of the most successful politicians on our continent shows that many commentators are too quick to dismiss Mrs May. I think she could last.

The fact is that the government’s silence is not just a question of Mrs May’s style. There are sound political reasons for it. The Conservatives command but a narrow majority in the House of Commons, and the party is hopelessly muddled on the issue, as are Conservative voters. Any clear declaration of strategy will create a storm. When that time comes the government needs to be ready. Mrs May became prime minister by picking the right moment to attack after years of patient build-up in which her potential opponents each self-destructed. She no doubt hopes for something similar over Brexit.

The eventual strategy will be the product of an alliance of three critical minsters. Mrs May herself, the Brexit minister David Davis, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. The alliance between Mrs May and Mr Hammond goes back a long way; they operate in compatible ways. Mr Hammond is putting the soft Brexit side of the argument – about the need to prevent disruption to the economy and to protect inward investment. Mr Davis is an interesting character. He is an ideological Brexiteer, but he possesses an integrity that few of his fellow politicians can match, while remaining an intelligent man. So far these attributes have not helped his political career; he has been too much trouble, and easily outmanoeuvred by smooth operators like Mrs May’s predecessor, David Cameron. Mrs May showed good judgement in picking him as her minister for Brexit. He doesn’t give much away, but from what I have seen, he is steadily working through the different issues and options and weighing the pros and cons. Meanwhile other senior ministers involved with Brexit, the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and the International Trade minister Liam Fox, are showing themselves up to be political lightweights not suited for these difficult times.

Given this background, we can divine what the government’s strategy is likely to be: a soft Brexit leading probably, but not inevitably, to a hard one. First of all the government will push to activate Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, giving two years notice to formal exit. This needs to be done by March, because that’s what Mrs May has promised. There are sound political reasons for this: first it means that there will be no awkwardness over the European Parliament elections due in 2019; more substantively the formal exit will be completed in plenty of time for the General Election due in 2020. Incidentally, there is no evidence that Mrs May plans to expend precious political capital on trying to get round the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to hold an early election. The Labour Party is stewing nicely in its own juice and this mitigates much of the government’s problem with a small majority. It is highly unlikely that they will stage a recovery by 2020, rather than being completely hollowed out. An election now would be a distraction from the problem at hand.

The problem with an early invocation of Article 50 is that it leaves a cliff face on eventual exit – the so-called train-wreck Brexit. Actually delaying Article 50 may not help by much – the real problem is negotiating alternative trading arrangements, which formally can’t start until after exit. But there is an obvious solution to this: a transitional period after exit. In this period much of the current trading relationship would be preserved, and the UK would continue to make budget contributions. The spectrum of possible solutions runs from full membership of the EEA (European Economic Area – like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) to simply membership of the customs union (like Turkey). The EEA option would be by some distance the simplest solution, but it would involve continued free movement of labour. That is surely a red line for Mrs May (though, I suspect, not for Mr Hammond). She has always taken a hard line on immigration, and seems immune to the economic arguments made for it. The Turkey solution would leave many markets not integrated, with high potential costs to some parts of the economy. She will aim for EEA market access with Turkey levels of free movement. She won’t get it, but that is what negotiation is about.

How long will the transitional period be? My guess is five years (i.e. up to 2024), though her initial bid might be just two. That puts the ball firmly in the court of the next parliament. The government will paint a picture of full exit from the customs union after 2024 in terms that will warm the heart of ideological Brexiteers. In that way Mrs May will paint herself as a hard Brexiteer. But there will be a general election before then, and if public opinion swings away from Brexit, the transitional deal can be made into something more permanent.

That’s what I think. It will remain formidably complicated – but it gives ground to both sides, and she can claim be implementing the mandate from the referendum, while giving everybody more time to think about how a standalone Britain should work. There will be meat for both factions in the Conservative Party – and Mrs May can present herself as a unifying figure. It might even work.

 

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The Tories take possession of Brexit; the Lib Dems will benefit

Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, closed the Conservative Party conference yesterday with a striking vision of her political direction, which was consistent with speeches made by other members of her government. This is a marked change of tone from her predecessor, the rather liberal David Cameron, and his Chancellor, George Osborne. Brexit is at the heart of it.

Earlier this week, FT columnist Janan Ganesh suggested that the stream of social policies coming out of the Conservatives were an attempt to deflect the politicians’ obsession with Brexit. But this is to misunderstand what these policies are about – they are an attempt by the Conservatives to tell people that voted for Brexit that they “get it”. The vote to leave the EU is the starting point of the whole thing.

What Mrs May is trying to do is to adopt what I will call the “Brexit coalition” as a political base. This starts with her hinterland: the non-metropolitan middle classes – most especially their older members, as their children are going to university and becoming more metropolitan in outlook. This group has a nostalgic view of the past, and feel threatened by the cultural aspects of globalisation. All the talk of patriotism, the hard line on immigration and the attacks on liberal elites (Oh how sick I am of being told that I am part of a ruling elite when all I am is a school governor!). Other nostalgic policies, like promoting grammar schools are in the mix too.These are bedrock Conservatives, largely taken for granted by Mr Cameron.

What is more interesting is that Mrs May wants to add the disaffected working classes, who voted in droves for Brexit, notwithstanding the advice of the Labour Party. They share the cultural biases of the non-metropolitan middle classes, but add to this resentment about economic insecurity. Mrs May is making a particular pitch for this group: emphasising the struggles of people at the margins, though failing to observe how much austerity policies, such as changes to tax credits, have added to their hardship. For these people she made a strong pitch for “fairness”, and indicated that she would act on a series of economic problems, like housing costs and poor infrastructure. She also rounded on unscrupulous businesses. In parts she sounded not unlike Ed Miliband, Labour’s previous leader, allowing her to claim the “centre ground”. Strikingly she also included a pitch for ethnic minorities, acknowledging discrimination. Ethnic minorities make up large sections of the working class, after all – though the Brexit voters tend to be “I’m not racist but…” types who think it is them who are the victims of discrimination.

But one part of the Brexit coalition is being left behind by all this: the businessmen who called for a bonfire of regulations to make businesses more competitive. On the one hand Mrs May’s tough line on sovereignty, immigration and foreigners points to a hard Brexit, and so little need to heed EU regulations. On the other the threatened policies to limit immigration would add a very hefty layer of extra bureaucracy on businesses, and the appeals to “fairness” suggest a strong role for regulation and government intervention too. Regulation and democracy go together like a horse and carriage. They may be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. But this part of the Brexit coalition always mattered more for its money than its voter appeal.

It is possible to admire the political cleverness of this. Ukip, who had been harrying the Tories on their nativist flank, are struggling at the moment, and this sort of thing should see them off, in Conservative constituencies at least. One might ask what the point of Ukip is. It also takes advantage of Labour’s disarray. At their own conference Labour failed to discuss Brexit. Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seemed to embrace it – but (admirably) failed to bang the drum on immigration. Other Labour big hitters want it the other way round: oppose or soften Brexit, but wave the flag on immigration. This leaves muddle at the core of Labour’s message on the top issues of the day. The party will no doubt maintain its iron grip on public sector workers, and those vulnerable to government reforms (students, benefit claimants, etc.). I would also be very surprised if their grip on ethnic minority communities was seriously dented. But this falls way short of an election-winning combination. It is not clear what is their appeal to grumpy working class voters, to say nothing of the non-metropolitan middle classes that former Labour leader Tony Blair made inroads on the last time Labour won an election.

But speaking as an ordinary decent liberal and proud citizen of the world (subject to a sneering jibe in Mrs May’s speech), I am aghast at the direction the Tory Party has taken. The are stigmatising foreigners and implying that I am unpatriotic. Many of us are friends, neighbours and work colleagues with people who are not British citizens, and we look on them as equal human beings who have earned our respect and a place in our society. I find that impossible to reconcile with some of the rhetoric coming out of the Conservative Party. And it gets worse. The EU referendum unleashed a wave of hate crime and anti-social behaviour aimed at people who are seen as not belonging here (not just foreigners of course). Much as the leaders of the Brexit campaign claim that this is nothing to do with them, Conservatives run the risk of allowing these attitudes to take root, even as they claim that it is not their intention. In the same way Mr Corbyn will not call off the misogynistic hard left thugs that are part his own coalition, contenting himself with mild disclaimers.

This is now becoming a real political opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. The party is now the best home for open-minded people who do not have a nativist outlook – or those of them appalled by developments in the Labour Party anyway. It becomes easier for the party to take credit for the better bits of the coalition years – which had accrued to Messrs Cameron and Osborne – rather than just the blame for the bad bits.

That opportunity for the Lib Dems will grow if the Conservatives fail to deliver on their new promises, as seems almost certain. As soft Brexit turns into a mirage, and hard Brexit turns out to be highly disruptive, and as the Tories fail to deliver economic gains, such as lower rents and better paid jobs, to working class and other struggling communities, and as the party’s small parliamentary majority bogs it down, then the appeal of Mrs May’s government will diminish. With Labour looking like an empty bubble of hope (or a pyramid scheme as suggested by the Economist’s Bagehot column), there is reason for the Lib Dems to gain.

Of course, the Lib Dems themselves have many serious questions to answer. But it may be easier than people think for it to double its vote share to 15-20% before coming under more serious scrutiny. As the keener Lib Dem activists travel to the latest by-election in Mr Cameron’s old seat in Witney, Oxfordshire, it is impossible not to notice the spring in their step. The bookies are already giving them second place (from fourth in 2015).

But this is a small shaft of light in a very gloomy British political landscape, as the wonton act of self-harm committed by its electorate in the referendum pushes events on a seemingly inevitable course.

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The housing crisis is an opportunity for the left.

“A Britain that works for everyone.” This is what Britain’s Conservatives say they want to achieve under the new prime minister, Theresa May. Partly, of course, this talk is meant as an attempt to divert attention from the difficult choices implied by Brexit.  But there is an issue that is slowly coming to dominate the life-chances of “everyone”, and could be even more important than Brexit: housing.  Or to give this a bit more precision: the high cost of buying or renting residential property. In order to fulfil their slogan, the Tories will have to make progress on this. Will they?

What brought this home to me last week was a report that people born in the 1990s (the so-called millennials) are worse off than those born in the 1980s at the same time in their lives. This is startling for a society that has, generally speaking, benefited from economic growth over the last 30 years, and where educational standards are rising. And the reason is easy to see: compared to people born even ten years earlier, many fewer millennials can afford to buy their own homes. They are unable to benefit from a general rise in property prices that has proceeded apace over that 30 years. Meanwhile rental costs have gone up too, which only makes the gap wider. This phenomenon does not just apply to Britain’s overheated southeast – it afflicts most major urban centres, to say nothing of popular university cities like Oxford and Cambridge.

Why is this such a big issue? The millennials themselves are not particularly important electorally, especially as so many of them show little interest in the political process. But their troubles worry their parents. And the trend is evident from before the millennial generation. More importantly, the generations following the millennials will be equally deprived. The numbers of property have-nots are growing, and property wealth is being concentrated into a smaller number of hands. High rents is a cause of hardship for ever increasing numbers of people – and a cause of rising homelessness, with all the other problems that brings in its wake.

Politicians are increasingly aware of this. Conservative leaders are talking the talk. Mrs May has appointed a new cabinet level minister of housing, Sajid Javid, who talks of a moral crisis. All leading politicians talk grandly of building many more houses. But there are two political problems, which are linked. The first is that the crisis arises from a profound failure of market incentives. And the second is that any policy that actually works is going to hurt a lot of politically influential people. This combination presents a test for Mrs May that she is unlikely to pass. It is one of the few decent opening in British politics for the left.

First consider market forces. Read The Economist and you might think that the housing problem is quite simple at heart. It is a failure of supply to meet the increased demand for housing from a rising population and changes to lifestyle that mean more people want to live alone. And there is a ready culprit for this: restrictive planning laws and NIMBYs who resist new housing developments, which between them surround our cities with over-protected green belts. This glib explanation contains some truth, but it misses two awkward points: much land where development is permitted is not being developed because owners would rather wait – “land banking”; and loose monetary policy has pushed up the cost of housing regardless of supply and demand.

Consider the first point. Property developers profit massively from increasing property prices. Indeed, it is central to their business model. They like to build cheap houses to maximise their profits from land trading, fighting furiously any regulations that might make homes more thermally efficient, for example. It is not in their interests to increase supply to levels where the value of property starts to come down. For all their moaning, they are quite happy with the situation as it is – though they would love to get their hands on green belt land with permission to build, and bank that too. A similar logic applies to rental values, since so many new properties are bought to let. The economic incentives do not point to the private sector solving this problem by themselves. In fact many private sector actors are likely to oppose any policy that actually bites, since that means cutting rental and sale values.

The effects of monetary policy are less understood: by this I mean the way governments and their central bankers have had no real qualms about rising levels of debt used to finance private house purchases. This has been happening since monetary policy was let off the leash by the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates in 1970. The extra monetary demand for housing set off by this increased availability of finance has not been matched by an increased supply of housing. Indeed it is about this time housebuilding slowed down. Easy money has simply led to the inflation of land prices.

To illustrate this, look at this graph of the ratio of house prices to earnings from Wikipedia (By D Wells – Own work):

1200px-uk_housing_affordability_price_earnings_ratio

We should expect to see house prices rising in line with earnings, given its relatively limited supply. We can see that the ratio of prices is tied closely to monetary conditions. Monetary conditions were loose in the late 1980s (the Lawson boom), but had to be tightened as inflation started to get out of hand. That caused a crash that is seared into the memory of older Tory politicians – the years of negative equity. Then things eased, with the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s being years of easy money. The financial crash of 2008 tightened things up, but now conditions are loose again.

Of course easy money and land-banking are self-reinforcing. If property prices dip, property developers can be confident that monetary conditions will ease and come to their rescue.

If I am right about these two problems lying behind Britain’s housing crisis, the solution is quite easy to see. First there needs to be a massive public-sector house building programme, including a large proportion of good-quality social housing, available at rents well below the current market level. This is best done by local and regional authorities, and financed by allowing them to borrow much more. This would put downward pressure on rents, which is perhaps the most urgent aspect of the housing crisis. It would also make it much easier to tackle homelessness.

The second thing that needs to be done is to tighten monetary policy. This may be by using some form of quantitative control on housing debt, but it may also mean raising interest rates. The main idea would be to encourage banks to finance local authority housebuilding, rather than private mortgages. This will require political courage, as it means, for a time at least, property prices falling without making property more affordable (since it will be harder to get finance) – as happened briefly after the crash of 2008/09.

The good news is that the first of these two groups of policy is fast becoming consensus on the left – sweeping in Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. And yet it will be very hard for the Conservatives to stomach. They associate social housing with left-wing voters. It may also upset NIMBYs where the estates are to be built, to say nothing of hordes of people who have invested in property to let – all natural Tories. Tory politicians talk freely of raising large sums of money to push house construction forward. But I have not heard any talk of giving a serious boost to social or public sector housing, or giving local authorities more freedom. It sounds horribly like subsidies for the private sector that will end up by inflating prices and developers’ wallets further.

On the second issue – reducing the volume of private housing finance – I see little sign from anywhere in the political spectrum of this being taken up. This is unsurprising. It would mark a profound change in economic management, which is heavily based on monetary policy. And change would cause outrage in Middle England, attached to its property values. And yet the current way speaks danger. It is increasingly dependent on ever increasing property prices, as these lose touch with incomes. It is a bubble that will surely burst at some point. Even so, I am sure that the left is closer to this policy change than the right. One implication is that more of the load of economic management will be taken by fiscal rather than monetary policy. The left is much more comfortable with that, though I suspect few have taken on that it means supporting austerity at the top of the economic cycle.

Mrs May talks much of making life better for the hard-pressed in our society. Lower rents are surely by far the best way to achieve that. Does she and her party have the stomach for it? If not, the left will have its chance.

 

 

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