‘Why Labour should think culturally as well as economically about immigration’, New Statesman, 19 November 2014

A couple of weeks ago, a report by academics at UCL made one of the strongest cases yet for the economic benefits of immigration to the UK – not for the first time. Report after report has come to broadly similar conclusions, albeit with the occasional (though contested) caveat concerning the impact on those in very low-paid, low-skilled jobs. Yet for all the influence they’ve had on voters – and indeed on most of the parties that claim to represent them – their authors may as well not have bothered.

Labour’s position on immigration is a case in point. As the evidence of the economic benefits mounts, the party has become increasingly ambivalent about the whole issue. Yesterday’s announcements by Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves are only the latest instalment in a long line of carefully calibrated interventions in which they, and of course Ed Miliband, have apologised for what happened under the last Labour government and promised tougher and tougher measures to put things right.

Their efforts may have escaped the notice of those Labour MPs who, in the wake of any election at which the party appears to have lost support to Ukip, rush onto the airwaves and into print to insist that the leadership do something. But it doesn’t make it any less true. Why, then, don’t voters seem to have noticed either? The answer – and indeed the reason why Labour is going to find neutralising immigration as an issue almost impossible in the run up to the general election – lies in the party’s continued insistence on giving an essentially economic answer to what for many voters is actually a cultural question.

Miliband’s big immigration speech at the start of the Rochester and Strood campaign was a classic example. Aside from the introduction of beefed-up border controls and English language requirements on those working in the public sector, the measures he proposed were all economic, covering the exploitation, recruitment and training of workers and restrictions on eligibility for benefits.

That this is the case should come as no real surprise. It may well be true that the Labour party “owes more to Methodism than to Marxism” but, like all socialist and social democratic parties, its view of the world is essentially economistic. As a result, unhappiness about immigration and the associated rise of the populist radical right tends, whatever academic research says to the contrary, to be seen as fundamentally driven by, say, labour market dislocation or pressures on public services.

If anything, the tendency to do that is stronger than ever now that it’s become virtually taboo among politicians of all parties to suggest that some of their voters are racially prejudiced or even simply xenophobic – something that their predecessors in, say, the Sixties and Seventies, were far more comfortable admitting and far more determined to do something about.

There are Labour people who have pointed to the need to take a more three-dimensional approach to the subject – one which requires Labour to do more to think about how it might tackle the sense of dispossession, dislocation and displacement associated with decades of immigration. Maurice Glasman is one example. John Denham is another, even if, in calling for the party to reassess its seemingly reflex support for the principle (and therefore the practical consequences) of free movement, his prescription is as much economic as it is cultural.

But they are, at present anyway, seen, if not as mavericks, then as on the fringes of a difficult debate that the party would rather not have – a debate between what in some continental social democratic parties are called the “beer drinkers” (concerned with maintaining the party’s appeal to the white working class) and the “wine drinkers” (who believe the future is liberal, not regressive).

This is a pity. For one thing, failing to acknowledge that the party’s more discerning beer drinkers like Glasman and Denham are saying something worth listening to will leave the field open to the lager louts – the rent-a-quote Labour MPs who talk a lot but don’t really have much to say.

For another, thinking more culturally as well as economically about immigration may mean that – in the long term at least – Labour finds a better way to address voters’ concerns than simply introducing measures that, even if they don’t prove futile or even counterproductive, few voters seem willing to believe will ever be implemented. That voters don’t trust the Tories either is something to hold on to, but it is also pretty cold comfort.

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‘A by-election win for Ukip: but will it repeat the SDP’s journey?’, New Statesman, 10 October 2014.

Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F’tang-F’tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel fought a brave fight but, sadly, could only manage fifth place. Like all the other parties in the Crosby by-election of November 1981, his Monster Raving Loony Party was swept away on the tide that ushered in the first by-election win for the Social Democratic Party. The SDP’s victorious candidate, Shirley Williams, had overturned what had been a safe-as-houses Tory majority to win with a whopping 49 per cent of the vote. How many more people, everyone wondered, were out there just itching to cast their ballots for a mould-breaking alternative to the mainstream parties?

Douglas Carswell’s victory is surely similarly historic. Does that make him the new Shirley Williams, and Ukip the next SDP?  Nigel Farage had better hope not.

At first glance, the parallels are striking. The SDP, like Ukip, clearly benefitted from the fact that voters had lost faith in the traditional top-dogs, Labour and the Conservatives, at the same time that the familiar third-party, the Liberals, had also begun to lose momentum.

Like Ukip, although it was essentially a splinter group from one of the two main parties, the SDP could nonetheless claim to appeal as well to many of the people who had supported its historic rival.

The SDP even managed, like Ukip, to pick up not only voters but paid-up members, too: indeed, at an estimated 145,000 in 1983 (over half of whom had apparently not previously belonged to a political party), it had more than three times the number that Farage’s outfit currently claims to have recruited.

Moreover, although its leaders were perhaps best known for their shared views on Europe, the SDP, like Ukip, was about so much more than that, expressing a deeper dissatisfaction with “politics as usual” and a desire for change across the piece rather than on a single issue.

The SDP could also claim the credit, like Ukip, for ensuring that the existing party with which it was initially most associated eventually moved to adopt much of its platform.

There, however, the similarities end – and, maybe, the warning-lights begin to flash for Farage.

Unlike Ukip, the SDP was created from the top-down, rather than the bottom-up. Without the so-called Gang of Four former ministers who founded it, and without the almost 30 sitting MPs who swiftly jumped ship to join them, it would never have gained the instant credibility that it was afforded by both the media and the electorate, and that pushed it, at one stage, to over 50 per cent support in the polls.

Ukip’s new signing, despite his richly-deserved reputation as an accomplished techno-populist, a committed libertarian and an all-round contrarian, is hardly in the same league as Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins, or even the now-forgotten Bill Rodgers.

What also gave the SDP wings (though not, it turned out, legs) was the fact that it, unlike Ukip, went all-out to appeal to the centre-ground of British politics – where most voters, as poll after poll attests, are located. The problem, as it turned out, was that while this remained the case, most of those voters soon (if they were initially inclined towards the Tories) or else eventually (if they normally thought of themselves as Labour) decided that their ideas and interests could be accommodated more-or-less satisfactorily by one or other of the existing alternatives. The economy improved and, along with victory in the Falklands, helped the Conservatives; Neil Kinnock came along and dragged Labour kicking and screaming back to reality.

What ultimately ensured, however, that the SDP went up like the proverbial rocket but came down like the proverbial stick was that it failed to overcome the residual tug of loyalty which most MPs (and wannabe MPs) felt towards the parties that had brought them into politics in the first place. Loyalty which most of those who funded those parties, and many of those who normally voted for those parties, shared with them.

Messrs Carswell and Farage, of course, will argue that, by being more of a bottom-up than a top-down project, Ukip – which has, after all, already lasted nearly twice as long as the SDP – will prove to be a slow-burn success rather than a spectacular failure.

They may be right. After all, loyalty to a party, particularly among voters, is a much rarer commodity than it was back in the early eighties. Ukip has also managed to lure away some very rich ex-Tory donors.

Just as importantly, it can point to constituencies in which it seems to enjoy especially concentrated support, meaning it suffers less than the SDP did from being too thinly-spread. This is the only way that smaller parties – the Lib Dems used to be the archetypal example – can survive and thrive in a First-past-the-post system designed to deny them the seats to which their vote share should arguably entitle them.  An electoral pact might help, too, but if Farage has any sense, Ukip will avoid the SDP’s mistake of getting too closely entwined with another party only to be swallowed up in the aftermath.

Ultimately, however, Ukip can only go so far under the current rules of the game. To really break the mould, it needs – just like the SDP needed but never succeeded – to break the electoral system. If it can’t or won’t do that, then its only hope is to break the Conservative party. Whether that happens is ultimately down to the Tories themselves.

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‘The Tory Schism: From Robert Peel and the split over the Corn Laws to the Ukip insurgency’, New Statesman, 5 September, 2014

The Conservative backbencher Douglas Carswell’s defection to Ukip has triggered talk of a seemingly inevitable battle for the soul of the Conservative Party one that could split the Tories so badly that they end up out of power for many years, even decades. Yet speculation about some kind of split on the right is nothing new. Even in the early 1990s, long before the rise of Ukip, there was much speculation to the effect that the argument over Europe then raging in the Tory party might end in the kind of rift that followed Robert Peel s 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws (which protected British agriculture against cheaper imports). This was a schism that prevented the Tories from winning an electoral majority for nearly 30 years, and it is easy to see why it could continue to do so. After all, both the bare bones of the story and the cast of main characters can be made to seem familiar.

A Conservative prime minister seen by many of his parliamentary colleagues as patronising and aloof rides roughshod over public opinion and their own heartfelt concerns. It turns out the latter are far more effectively expressed by a charismatic outsider with a populist touch that few, if any, of his rivals come close to matching. Sadly, however, for all the enthusiasm and emotion generated, much of the electorate especially those who represent the Britain of the future remains largely unpersuaded, thereby handing victory, almost by default, to the Tories opponents. Finally, when things begin to go wrong for them, too, the Tory party wins a majority but only after it ostensibly has been forced to abandon the principle that triggered the civil war in the first place and only after it has lost some of the brightest and the best to its rivals. Even then, things aren’t completely settled; the dispute rumbles on, occasionally costing the party an election it might otherwise have won, until the early part of the next century.

Yet a more detailed look at the facts suggests the differences between then and now are as striking as the similarities of institutions, individuals, interests or ideas. When it comes to the first, we need to remember that the 21st-century Conservative Party is a very different beast from its mid-19th-century predecessor. This was a far looser collection of MPs whose loyalties often lay as much with men as with measures. And since, even in 1841 and therefore after the Great Reform Act, it could win a governing majority with just 306,000 votes (as opposed to the 14 million it took in 1992, the last time the Tories won one), it had little in the way of permanent extra-parliamentary organisation, be it voluntary or professional. Nor, as a consequence, did it need to keep sweet the myriad donors and lenders who today provide the tens of millions of pounds required to keep things ticking over, let alone fight elections. In other words, the entity that split after 1846 was a fluid work in progress rather than a fully formed party so much so that the split might be better seen as an aspect of its creation, rather than a catastrophic misjudgement by a bunch of people whom John Stuart Mill called stupid.

In the modern era (and perhaps even the postmodern era) most large, mainstream, well-established parties do not split, at least in the sense of suffering a substantial break­away that gives rise to a significant new competitor and/or an alliance (maybe merger) with an existing rival. Labour s loss of 30 MPs to the newly formed Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s was the exception that proves the rule, and one it eventually managed to overcome. That is not to say they do not experience rifts. But these are for the most part contained or sublimated, sometimes in more or less formal factions and sometimes, when views cross-cut rather than map on to each other, by less hard-and-fast tendencies. This is especially the case in first-past-the-post systems, where the barriers to entry for small parties especially those whose support is evenly but thinly spread, rather than geographically concentrated are so high that they guarantee all but the most dedicated and the most deluded will stick with the devil they know. Unless and until the Conservative Party decides that, like some other centre-right parties in Europe, its best chance of getting into government lies in forming a coalition with a smaller party on its far-right flank, it will continue to oppose any form of proportional representation. As a result, any mass breakout from its ranks, if it occurs at all, is likely to be limited and short-lived.

So much for institutions: what about individuals? Here, too, there are big differences between 1846 and 2014. For one thing, however gifted a populist communicator Nigel Farage is, he is no Disraeli. Farage is the insurgent leader of a potential breakaway movement: Disraeli was the parliamentary leader of the rump that remained loyal after the Peelite split, steering the party through a long period of opposition after 1847 and finally winning a majority at the election of 1874. This was his reward not just for his admirable patience, but for his astounding guile passing the Second Reform Act just before an all-too-brief first bite at the premiership six years previously.

It may well be that Cameron is as disliked by as many of his backbenchers as Peel was by his. Peel lost the support of his party not so much because he refused to make a change for which his MPs were calling but because he refused to let them stop him making a change that he himself felt ideologically compelled to make. Even Cameron s greatest admirers would be hard-pressed to argue that, with the honourable exception of gay marriage, he would rather go down fighting for a principle than achieve some kind of quick fix. His characteristic modus operandi is to do anything and everything he can to buy off his critics, in the hope that it will allow him to make it past the next election, after which he can probably work something out. That, after all, is exactly what he has been doing on Europe since he first promised to pull Tory MPs out of the European People s Party alliance during the Conservative leadership contest in 2005.

For Peel, repealing the Corn Laws was part of a wider free-trade agenda that would, he was convinced, boost not only the country s economy but also his party s chances of attracting the support of the emerging middles classes living and working in its most dynamic cities and regions. The fault line exposed in the party by the Corn Laws wasn’t simply a political or policy disagreement: it was rooted in an ongoing, disruptive transformation of Britain s political economy, and therefore its party system.

Pretty much the same can be said of what happened to the Liberals after the First World War. Ostensibly the split in their party combined personality and principle, Lloyd George arguing that Asquith and his colleagues had to set aside some of their most cherished convictions in order to mobilise the resources advisable to combat an existential threat. But what did for the Liberal Party was that it proved unable to adjust to an era in which competition would revolve around the claims of working people to the economic rewards and political power to which their industrial muscle and sheer numbers, at least in their own view, entitled them.

Douglas Carswell’s conservative critique of Britain s relationship with the European Union is in essence that of the hyper-globalist rather than the Little Englander. Sovereignty is important, but so is the idea that membership of the EU leaves us in Britain shackled to a corpse and therefore prevents us from fulfilling our manifest destiny as a freewheeling, free-trading, easy-hire, easy-fire, offshore island doing business with the Anglosphere as well as the rising powers of Asia and South America.

Perhaps Carswell, and others who might follow him into Ukip either before or after the next election, can claim as Peelites such as Gladstone, who split the Conservatives by defecting to what became the Liberal Party, could claim to be on the side of the future rather than the past? Perhaps the majority of the most powerful financial, commercial and industrial interests in Britain, which continue to believe that belonging to the EU and expanding our economic horizons need not be a zero-sum game, are as deluded as the aristocrats and gentlemen farmers who believed that agriculture would remain dominant?

Probably not. Business in Britain is hard-headed rather than sentimental in its belief that, on balance and for the foreseeable future, EU membership is necessary. There are many free-marketeers in the parliamentary Conservative Party who, more or less regretfully, think the same way. Those same MPs look at Ukip and at what it says about, say, welfare, immigration and education, and see in its words and actions not their kind of neoliberalism but, rather, angry nativism and aggrieved nostalgia. Most current and would-be Conservative MPs, even though they value tradition and believe in the common sense of ordinary people, still believe in a better tomorrow rather than a better yesterday. And the people whom they know in their heart of hearts the centre right needs to attract, at least in the long term, are not the autochthonous voters stranded in English seaside towns but the majority who work in the expanding sectors of the economy.

Ukip undeniably has some strengths. It is essentially a bottom-up rather than a top-down project, and it has already lasted nearly twice as long as the SDP, which broke away from Labour in 1981 after the party s decision to elect Michael Foot as leader and take a sharp turn to the left. It also seems determined to mimic the Liberal Democrats (and, indeed, the French Front National s) strategy of building on local success. Its ability to attract funding from wealthy individuals, however eccentric they can be made to appear by their opponents, is important. It may also be the case that the volatility of voters who are less and less anchored in tribal loyalties and the media s eagerness to find colourful characters has changed the rules of the political game. So, too, perhaps, has the alternative route to influence that social media and the internet offer to backbenchers. And, perhaps, as the techno-populist Carswell would no doubt argue, those of us who are sceptical just don t get it. The earthquake may be coming, the volcano about to blow. Somehow, however, I doubt it.

The Conservative Party contains many MPs who believe that this country would be better off outside the EU. And, who knows, some of them may end up concluding like Carswell that the best way of persuading Cameron or whoever succeeds him that the Tories have no option but to recommend withdrawal is to defect to Ukip. Yet most of their colleagues, as well as many of those who work for their re-election at the grass roots or who supply them with the financial wherewithal to do so, would look with horror on anything that could imperil the party s ability to take on and beat its main enemy, Labour which also happens to be the shortest route to getting the referendum so many of them crave.

The Conservative Party has stayed pretty much intact for almost the whole of the past century, even though Tories have been arguing among themselves about Europe since at least the early 1960s. This, combined with lessons learned from Labour s more traumatic experience in the 1980s and the remorseless logic of Britain s political economy and electoral system, suggests that all the talk of tectonic plates shifting may be just a little bit premature. ​

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‘Universities lack the lobbying clout to exempt students from migration target’, The Conversation, 27 August 2014.

A recent joint report by British Future and Universities UK has criticised the Coalition for imposing unnecessary limits on the numbers of foreign students allowed into the country. Its authors say government immigration policy that attracts “the brightest and the best” has managed to hobble one of Britain’s most successful export industries – higher education.

Most people, despite their desire to see overall immigration reduced, apparently do not think that including students in the government’s net migration target makes much sense.

In research just published, James Hampshire and I looked at why the decision to include students in the net migration target was made, how it was implemented, and the relative failure of the higher education lobby to do very much about it.

The decision

Net migration is the difference between immigration and emigration. If the Tories’ pledge to reduce it from the hundreds to the tens of thousands was to be redeemed, then the Coalition had precious few options.

Since emigration is not something any government can do very much about, and since the same goes for the entry of EU citizens, it was bound to focus its attention on reducing non-EU immigration. It could do this in three areas: work-related migration, family migration, and foreign students.

Although it did not impose an actual cap on international students, the government included them in the overall net migration target because they made up such a significant proportion of the numbers coming in and staying on. Indeed, not to have done so would arguably have rendered that target pretty meaningless.

And although people might tell pollsters they have no objection to international students, politicians and officials know that in real life, when those same people look around them, they can’t tell who is a student and who isn’t. All they see is more foreigners – and many of them don’t like it.

Rules tightened

To implement the policy, in April 2012 the Coalition abolished the Tier 1 post-study work route, under which foreign students could stay and look for work after finishing their studies. New ruleswere introduced that require foreign students who wish to stay in the UK after graduation to acquire a skilled job offer from an employer.

The government also increased the financial and language requirements for overseas students, and increased the restrictions on certain students’ rights to work or bring dependent relatives. In addition, there has been an increase in scrutiny of institutions sponsoring foreign students.

Failure of the HE lobby

The UK’s higher education institutions have been unable to do much about all this. They have fallen far short of the successes business has enjoyed in obtaining significant concessions to work-related migration restrictions.

According to senior officials we interviewed, Universities UK and the education sector as a whole are less used to lobbying. Institutions are not yet as effective as business at doing so, often achieving publicity but little leverage. For instance, the sector has not persuaded the Home Office to task the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to look into the issue of students in the net migration cap and make recommendations.

Notwithstanding criticisms from parliamentary committees, there has been relatively little pressure and no organised campaign from MPs sitting in what are sometimes thought of as “university seats”. This is partly because they come from different parties, and partly because it is not always easy to identify a particular MP as the representative of a university or student population, because they may be spread across several parliamentary constituencies.

There is also little evidence of higher education lobbyists ruthlessly targeting their efforts at either Conservative MPs, or at those Tories in the Number Ten Policy Unit charged with writing the party’s next manifesto.

Brushing off criticisms

While statistics indicate substantial falls in the number of study visas being issued to foreign students, the fall has been concentrated in the further education and language school sectors, not in the university sector.

This, alongside the fact that there is no explicit, discrete cap on international students, has made it easier for the government to brush off criticisms, even when they come from within – most obviously from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and business secretary Vince Cable.

It’s worth emphasising that bureaucracy and both inter- and intra-party politics play a big part in all this too. Put bluntly: BIS is nowhere near as big a beast as the Home Office in the Whitehall jungle; Cable is a Lib Dem, not a Tory; and Theresa May and David Cameron both have an awful lot invested in being seen to be doing their very best to hit their net migration target by 2015. Anyone hoping to see students removed from that target, then, had better not hold their breath.

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‘Blond ambition to the fore as Boris Johnson announces he will fight 2015 general election’, The Conversation, 6 August 2014.

So the worst-kept secret in British politics is no longer a secret. Boris Johnson is on the lookout for a constituency willing to select him as their Conservative candidate at the election next May.

He won’t have trouble finding one – and, just as importantly, one that will guarantee him safe passage into parliament. Anyone who’s ever been to a Tory Party conference will testify to Boris’s pulling power. It used to be said of Michael Heseltine – another Conservative politician with blond ambition – that “he knew how to find the clitoris of the Conservative Party”. Boris Johnson is equally familiar with his party’s erogenous zones.

But today’s news isn’t all about Boris. It’s also about David Cameron. By finally making his intentions known, Johnson is going to find it difficult to deflect accusations that he is, in effect, casting a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister’s chances of winning a convincing majority in 2015. There are three equally tantalising scenarios on offer.

The first is that the Conservatives don’t even end up as the largest party and Cameron is summarily ejected from Downing Street, in which case he would immediately resign, leaving the way clear for Boris to fight a leadership contest against, in all probability, George Osborne and Theresa May and possibly one or two other, darker horses – odds on Chris Grayling anyone?

The second is that Cameron makes it back into Downing Street as leader of a second coalition, in which case he spends the following couple of years building up to a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU – one which, if he loses, will virtually oblige him to stand down or, if he wins, may well see him stay on another year or so before calling it a day and doing something rather less taxing instead. Cue the leadership election outlined above.

The third is that Cameron makes it back into Downing Street as the leader of a Conservative government with either an uncomfortably small or non-existent majority. If he’s lucky, he holds the ring, fights the referendum, and ditto. If he’s unlucky, he enjoys a brief honeymoon or else no honeymoon at all, and then – after trying but failing to keep his parliamentary party in order – faces a vote of no-confidence triggered by the kamikaze squadron seated on the benches behind him. Cue the leadership … You get the picture.

Favourite son

Whatever, Boris is, on the face of it at least, nicely placed to take over – all the more so perhaps because Tory Eurosceptics won’t have failed to notice that he’s moved more and more firmly towards (without ever actually fully joining) the “Better Off Out” camp. If there is a leadership election, this could be a huge help in ensuring that he is one of the two people chosen by MPs to go forward to the run-off vote among the wider membership.

There, he is – on current form at least – the clear favourite. In a scientific poll of the Conservative Party grassroots which we undertook last summer with the help of YouGov, we found that Boris Johnson was way out in front, with 38% of first preferences – double the number given to Theresa May and a long way ahead of George Osborne who picked up just three per cent of them.
Boris, we found, goes down particularly well in London – no surprise there, perhaps, although there is just the faintest possibility that Tory members in the capital will resent the implication of his decision that being mayor is a part-time job. No surprise, given his media profile, that he goes down better than his putative competitors among younger members – although, given the fact the average Tory Party member is approaching retirement age, this is probably no great cause for celebration in the Boris camp.

Boris’s woman trouble

Boris, we should note, also needs to worry about women. Although they make up a minority of the Conservative Party, we found quite a marked difference between the proportion of male and female members willing to give him their first preference: for men, the figure was 41%; for women, it was just 32%. Quite why that’s the case, I will leave for others to speculate.

The real test for Boris will come both before – and if he makes it through – after a membership ballot. There are many Tory MPs who don’t trust him as far as they can throw him, and possibly even more who are jealous of him. Many remember his previous sojourn in parliament, which wasn’t particularly impressive on any count. They can also read the polling, which has long indicated that, while members of the British public love Boris as they love virtually no other politician, they don’t really see him as prime ministerial material.

If he makes it into the Commons and there is no immediate leadership contest because Cameron remains PM, then Boris will be given a job to do – one that will either give him a real chance to show he can actually perform at the highest level or else will give him more than enough rope to hang himself.

If, in the end, Boris does make it to the top of the greasy pole in the Tory Party, the question will be whether he can persuade voters that he has enough gravitas and competence to run the country and, whether it be at home or abroad, not to say or do anything too silly.

We know he’s a charmer. And he’s certainly a chancer. But do enough of us think, in our heart of hearts, that, deep down, he’s really got what it takes to do a grown-up job in a nation that still regards itself as a world power? We may very well soon find out.

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‘Flat tax? Flat chance’, Guardian, 30 July 2014.

Quizzed on remarks made by Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin to the rightwing thinktank Politeia, an unnamed Tory spokesman could not have made himself much clearer: “There will be no flat tax,” he said. “We oppose it. Full stop.” That hasn’t, of course, stopped Labour’s Treasury team, which wasted no time in claiming that Letwin – whose loose lips have sunk a few ships over the years – had let the fiscal feline out of the bag.

The shadow chief secretary, Chris Leslie, said: “You can’t trust what the Tories say on tax. They said they had no plans to raise VAT, and did it after the election.” Now, “not content with having already cut taxes for millionaires, a Tory flat tax would mean even lower taxes for the richest and higher taxes for millions of working people”. To back up its argument, Labour points to the fact that a flat tax was “championed” by the chancellor, George Osborne, 10 years ago. It is right – but only up to a point.

In early September 2005, the Conservative party’s drawn-out leadership contest was entering its final stages and David Cameron, prior to his headline-grabbing speech at the party conference in Blackpool a few weeks later, was far from being the the favourite to win it. Having pitched themselves as centrist modernisers, his team needed to say and do things that would garner some desperately needed support from MPs who wanted a return to Thatcherite verities, and therefore inclined towards either Liam Fox or David Davis.

One of those things was Cameron’s decision to match Fox’s promise to pull Tory MEPs out of the centre-right EPP group in the European parliament. The other was George Osborne – Cameron’s campaign manager but also shadow chancellor – declaring, in a speech to the Social Market Foundation, that: “We need to make the case for lower, simpler and flatter taxes as a distinct alternative to the higher and more complex tax system foisted on us by Gordon Brown”. He added: “A flat tax can be very progressive … A much larger personal allowance would mean that many low-income people are taken out of tax altogether. And those on middle incomes find that a big slice of that income is tax-free.”

Unlike Cameron’s pledge on the EPP, which he wasn’t allowed to renege on by his parliamentary party, and which has arguably contributed significantly to the UK’s alarming loss of influence in the EU, Osborne’s flirtation with flat taxes was quickly forgotten – shunted off into the sidings of a policy commission he set up to advise him on taxation more generally. Despite the fact that it was headed by the uber-Thatcherite Michael Forsyth, that commission rejected a flat tax as impractical. That it did so was actually par for the Tory course. Back in the 1960s, Brian Reading, now of Lombard Street Research, did some work on a flat tax for the party, and it wasn’t considered a runner by those in charge. But if Reading thought it may have been then, even he is dismissive of the idea now. Indeed, when asked about it in 2005, he said it would be “political suicide” because there were bound to be far more losers than winners.

Added to the probability that it might therefore turn out to be some sort of poll tax mark II, the introduction of a flat tax also risks, especially early on, failing to raise as much revenue as the current system – not exactly what an iron chancellor promising to bear down hard on the deficit and debt is looking for.

Anyone who still needs convincing that the Tories won’t be introducing a flat tax any time soon just has to glance at a list of the countries that have introduced it. Some of them, it’s true, are respected – albeit fairly small, new and unfamiliar – liberal democracies. Others most definitely are not. Pointing out that a flat tax has worked in Russia, Ukraine and Hong Kong isn’t, I suspect, going to go down all that well on the proverbial doorstep in Great Britain. Conclusion? Not. Going. To. Happen.

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‘The recovery might not deliver David Cameron a majority in 2015. Here’s why’, Telegraph, 28 July 2014

“All political history shows that the standing of a Government and its ability to hold the confidence of the electorate at a General Election depend on the success of its economic policy.” So said Labour’s Harold Wilson, who, as someone who led his party to four victories between 1964 and 1974, knew what he was talking about.

So, does the fact that the UK economy finally looks like it’s grown bigger than it was before “the great recession” mean it will deliver David Cameron a majority in 2015?

Back in Wilson’s day, analysts were rather more confident that there was a clear relationship between how the economy was doing and which side would win. Indeed, some even argued that just two indicators – the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation – told us all we needed to know.

Their confidence was understandable. After all, in the era of Keynesian demand management, governments controlled not only fiscal policy but also interest rates and could therefore do a lot to align the electoral and the economic cycle.

Sometimes they got it right and, like the Tories in 1955 and 1959 and Labour in 1966, they were rewarded with landslides. Sometimes they got it wrong. In the run up to 1964, Conservative Chancellor Reggie Maudling simply ran out of time before his “dash for growth” could trump the “pay pause” instituted by his predecessor Selwyn Lloyd. In 1970 – the only election he lost – Wilson, after squandering the nation’s trust by devaluing sterling, went too early, believing that the post-devaluation squeeze on real wages imposed by Chancellor Roy Jenkins would be forgotten as growth returned.

From the 1980s onwards, psephologists were acknowledging that even when things like interest rates were added to their models, “objective” economic indicators were no longer enough to explain election results. The key to prediction now appeared to be economic expectations.

There was – and still is – some debate about whether forecasters should be focusing on voters’ (egocentric) views on their own situation, or their (sociotropic) sense of how the country as a whole is doing. But there was agreement that what mattered now was whether they felt that things were moving in the right direction. The return of economic optimism helped to explain why Margaret Thatcher was able to win a resounding victory in 1983 despite massively high unemployment and before inflation could really said to have been properly tamed – and why John Major won in difficult economic times in 1992.

Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, however, presented experts with a problem. Economically, things had begun to look up not long after sterling crashed out of the ERM. Yet this turned out to be the archetypal “voteless recovery”.

The solution to this conundrum soon became apparent – and remained important throughout New Labour’s 13 years in power. Yes, the economy mattered. And so did expectations. But what was also crucial were voters’ views on the respective competence of the parties vying for power.

Labour wasn’t elected in 1992 because people still didn’t trust it to handle the economy. The Conservatives lost in 1997 because Blair and Brown worked hard to rebuild that trust – and because Major and Lamont had so blown their party’s reputation for managing the economy that voters refused to give Ken Clarke the credit he deserved for the post-ERM upturn.

Likewise, while many economists praised Brown and Darling’s handling of the impact of the global financial crisis, the electorate, it turned out, was in no mood to listen. That said, voters weren’t much impressed by the uncertain response to the crisis coming from Cameron and Osborne – and too many of them were worried about the damage which the Tories’ promised “age of austerity” might do to public services to entrust them with an overall majority.

The Conservatives have tried as hard as possible since 2010 to limit that damage, at least to popular services like health, education and pensions. They will also go into the 2015 election with a handy lead over Labour when it comes to trust and competence. Meanwhile, most of the classic “objective” indicators also favour them: GDP is growing; unemployment is coming down; inflation and interest rates are low.

On the other hand, real wage growth remains anaemic, while the lingering impact of the recession is still palpable – and not just for the very poorest among us. Just as importantly, polls suggest that many people believe that any recovery has occurred in spite of rather than because of action that the government has taken. As a result, economic optimism may be rising, but it may not reward the Tories with anywhere near as many votes as they clearly think they deserve. The economy probably does decide elections. But exactly how it does so is far more complicated than many of us imagine.

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