‘We still haven’t had “the first internet election” – but it could come soon’, ConservativeHome, 19 February 2015.

With May 7th fast approaching, observers of politics, be they journalists or academics, will be asking, just as they’ve been doing since at least the mid-nineties, when British parties first woke up to the web, “will this be the first internet election”?  And, if they’re honest, they will have to admit that the answer is still no.

Digital may no longer be an afterthought but it is still something of a bolt-on rather than a seamless, integral part of parties’ efforts to persuade and mobilise.  Meanwhile, e-voting remains just as much of a pipe-dream – a silver bullet solution for worryingly low levels of youth participation that is nowhere near surmounting the serious legal and technical obstacles to its introduction.

Our world is increasingly digital, our every interaction – business, leisure, and even relationships – facilitated by our internet connections, fixed or mobile.  Government and politics, however, are a long way from being ‘digital by default’.

True, electoral campaigns now make extensive use of data analysis and communications technologies.  And many politicians, like their parties, are using websites and social media to get their messages out to the public.  But does this add up to a proverbial paradigm shift – a ‘digital embrace’?

Almost certainly not.  While party HQs may claim they have some pretty cutting edge staff and software, they still lag a long way behind commercial firms, NGOs, and media organisations.  Their websites are often clunky and, with a few honourable exceptions, there are very few MPs and candidates, let alone parties, who pursue genuinely two-way interaction with people who they still insist on thinking of as their ‘audiences’.

At local level, especially in associations and branches dominated by members who grew up – and are still living – in an analogue age, things are often, though not always, even worse.  Sure, there are some creative things going on, but often in spite of rather than because of efforts at the centre.  Certainly, Conservative activists are the very last people who need to be told that the IT infrastructure provided by parties isn’t exactly state of the art.

Of course politics doesn’t just stop and start with the parties themselves – or indeed with the mainstream.  One of the challenges to politics as usual is the way the net creates a forum for debate which can dissolve the hierarchies between and within organisations and create new kinds of potentially disruptive insurgencies.

ConHome is actually a case study in this respect: after all, it originated in an ultimately successful campaign to prevent the party leadership from removing the right to select the Tory leader from the grassroots so that it would once again be the sole preserve of MPs at Westminster.  Since then it has gone from strength to strength – so much so that it has become a forum that even government ministers ignore at their peril, with the same going (in spades) for even more deliberately disruptive forces like Guido Fawkes.  ConHome has also spawned imitators on the centre-left, like LabourList.  Meanwhile its founder, despite having gone on to carve out a career for himself in the mainstream media, clearly retains his faith in digitally-facilitated debate, having this week launched a new web-based project.

Once one takes even a few baby-steps beyond politics-as-usual, of course, there are a whole host of skilled social media users, high-profile bloggers and helpful aggregators out there.  Whether, however, the dynamism they display is a way of hooking people (particularly young people) into politics and thus changing how it’s done or, paradoxically, of reminding them of just how alienated they feel from it right now is very much a moot point.

What is not a moot point, however, is the potential that digital offers those who want to reform the state as well as politics more generally.  GDS is dedicated to providing simpler, clearer and faster government services and data with online access for citizen-users and, in so doing, likewise threatening to dissolve hierarchies and disrupt customary practices in ways that inevitably result in pushback from the vested interests concerned, be they big IT contractors and consultants or civil servants themselves.

It will come as no surprise to ConHome readers, perhaps, to hear that Francis Maude, the Tory modernisers’ Tory moderniser, and Minister for the Cabinet Office since 2010, has been working to catalyse such changes – which is why many of us are looking forward to hearing him speak next week on “Going digital? How embracing technology could end ‘politics (and government) as usual”.

Although Maude has recently announced his retirement from the Commons at the next election, one suspects that, having won the respect of innovators (and the ire of stick-in-the-muds) across the political spectrum for his technological tenacity, he won’t simply be leaving it there. His talk next Tuesday (which will be introduced by Matthew D’Ancona and which you can book tickets for here) is unlikely, then, to be his swansong – more a dispatch from the frontline.

(This post first appeared on ConHome here).

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‘The UK’s political parties do matter when it comes to determining immigration policy’, Democratic Audit UK, 29 January 2015 (with James Hampshire)

The fact that the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition has clearly been unable to meet its target of reducing net migration from the hundreds to the tens of thousands – a promise that could almost certainly never have been met and therefore should probably never have been made – must not be allowed to obscure the fact that UK migration policy has tightened measurably since May 2010 and that this has even had an appreciable impact on inflows. Inasmuch as the policy is a failure, then, it can at least be counted a heroic one.

That it cannot be counted as a success – that, put another way, the coalition managed to turn inputs into outputs but that this hasn’t been fully translated into outcomes – is hardly surprising.  After all, even in the best of times, the ability to turn political dreams into policy realities comes perilously close to alchemy.  Indeed, politicians can be said to be doing pretty well if they manage to turn gold into base metal let alone base metal into gold.

The ‘black box’ between election results and policy outcomes consists of a complex interplay between politicians, civil servants, and pressure groups.  What matters is not simply a change of administration, although that is important, but also the relative strength and influence of various interest groups and government departments, all of which determines whether the impact of party will be concentrated or diluted. Coalition government adds a party political twist to all this since partisan differences often become intertwined with the functional division of labour and interests between different ministries, each with institutional memories and agendas of their own.

Opening the ‘black box’ that is Coalition migration policy since 2010 – an exercise involving interviews and documentary analysis that we report on in more detail elsewhere – reveals that, despite the formation of a coalition between two parties with apparently opposed policy positions, as well as interest group lobbying and intra-coalition conflicts in government, partisan influence on immigration policy is nonetheless clearly evident. In marked contrast to a Labour administration that liberalised immigration policy, the coalition has clearly introduced a more restrictive agenda. Despite its reliance on coalition partners with a more liberal policy, and despite significant opposition from pro-immigration interest groups, the Conservatives have been able to transpose their core election pledges into policy outputs and impact (even if more marginally than they hope) on outcomes.

Our study therefore throws doubt on the migration literature that downplays the significance of political parties for immigration policy outputs as well as outcomes, whether due to the ‘lock-in’ effects of previous policy decisions, or the influence of pro-immigration ‘clients’, or the inherent inability of EU member states to influence migration flows in a free market for labour with porous borders to a globalising world. The fact that UK immigration policy has gone from being one of the most restrictive anywhere in Europe during the Conservative dominated 1980s, to one of the most liberal under Labour in the early 2000s, and has now moved back in a more restrictive direction under a Conservative-led coalition since 2010 undermines the idea that there is a structural ‘expansionary bias’ in immigration policymaking.

In the UK’s ‘majoritarian’ (as opposed to ‘consensus’) democracy, immigration policies move sometimes in an expansionary direction, sometimes in a restrictive direction; and which party or parties are in government matters for explaining this. Further, although other non-policy factors no doubt play a role, the fact that numbers have come down in those areas where policy has been most significantly tightened, namely family and non-tertiary student migration, shows that governments and therefore parties are far from powerless in influencing migration outcomes. There might, of course, been a slightly different story to tell had one party, the Conservatives, not been able, from the negotiation of the coalition agreement onwards, to establish almost complete mastery of migration policy. But it did and therefore the song, as they say, remains the same.

However, what has gone on since 2010 also illustrates how partisan influence on immigration policy outputs is heavily mediated and constrained. Partisan influence has been mediated as much by functional dilemmas manifested through inter-departmental disagreements as by political differences between the coalition partners, though the former are sometimes reinforced or presented as partisan conflicts depending on ministerial portfolios.

Disagreements between the Home Office and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, have constituted a significant faultline in coalition debates over immigration.  These are easily dramatized as ‘Theresa (May) vs Vince (Cable)’ but rather more important is the fact that they have pitted a control-oriented behemoth against a liberally-oriented minnow – a fight in which there was only ever going to be one overall winner.

The qualifier ‘overall’, however, is important.  The variation between policy subfields (e.g. work, student, and family migration) shows that the impact of party has also been heavily mediated by both intra- (rather than inter-) party arguments and organized interests. BIS has, on occasions, been able to call on the assistance of an economically liberal Chancellor who, for various reasons, is disinclined to give the Home Secretary everything she wants, and whose Department is a match (indeed probably more than a match) for hers.

Mrs May’s increasingly (some would say painfully) obvious leadership ambitions have almost certainly reduced the backing she has received recently from the Prime Minister – something our study revealed was previously vital in settling arguments in her favour.  BIS also has some powerful allies in the business world, whose success in getting changes made to the rules on highly skilled (and highly paid) labour migration stands in marked contrast to the mixed record of the education sector and the near-complete failure of migrant-rights organisations in achieving their goals.

To understand the degree to which electoral pledges influence policy outputs, and ultimately perhaps outcomes, then, requires painstaking examination of the interplay between partisan change, interest groups, and interdepartmental conflict. Our case suggests that while it is sometimes possible to parse these different elements, often it is not. This means there are limitations to scholarly approaches to immigration that focus on one or the other of the factors outlined above: political economists on employers and other lobby groups; party scholars on political parties; and institutionalists on functional and bureaucratic conflict.

In the search for impressively parsimonious explanations a lot of (how shall we put it?) ‘non-trivial complexity’ gets lost. Each of the above approaches has considerable merits, but can provide at best a partial picture of how politics shapes immigration policy outputs. Our aim should be to combine them, without losing sight of the wood for the trees.

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British voters open to a Jewish prime minister — but some are more welcoming than others, The Conversation, 22 January 2015

The horrific murder of four Jewish men in a Paris supermarket has understandably provoked a debate about levels of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, including, of course, the UK. According to some campaigning organisations things aren’t good and may be getting worse.

But what, if any, are the electoral implications? As part of my research on the Labour Party, I commissioned the polling company YouGov to find out how British voters would feel about a Jewish politician leading a political party and making it into Number 10.

This might well happen sooner than many voters realise. Admittedly, the chances of Labour winning a comfortable overall majority look vanishingly small right now. Labour could, however, emerge as the largest party or finish just a handful of seats behind the Conservatives. In that case, depending on the choices made by other parties, Ed Miliband could become Britain’s first Jewish prime minister – or, depending on how we treat Benjamin Disraeli, at least the first since 1880.

In fact, only a third of UK voters actually know the Labour leader is Jewish. And those planning to vote Labour are less aware of it than those planning to vote for the Conservatives, the Lib Dems or UKIP.

Even if more people did know Miliband (or any other party leader) was Jewish, it seems unlikely that it would have much impact. The vast majority of respondents – some 83% – said that it would make no difference to their voting intentions.

There were, however, some differences between the supporters of the four parties under consideration. Some 13% of UKIP voters said they would be less likely to vote for a party with a Jewish leader. Only 7% of Conservative voters said the same. For the Liberal Democrat voters, the figure stood at 6% and for Labour 4%.

And UKIP voters were less likely to see a Jewish prime minister as “equally acceptable” as a prime minister from another faith. Only 48% of those intending to vote UKIP agreed when asked, which compared with 62% of voters in general. The highest level of agreement came from Lib Dem and Labour supporters, at 73% and 72%. Conservative supporters were not far behind at 65%.

Beyond the ballot

As for anti-Semitism more generally, the picture is far from perfect but perhaps not as worrying as it is in other countries in Europe. Just 10% of all respondents agreed with the statement that “Jews have too much influence in this country” – although once again UKIP supporters stood out somewhat. Some 18% of them agreed with this statement, compared to 9% of those planning to vote Conservative, 10% of those planning to vote Labour and 5% of those planning to vote Lib Dem.

It is also worth noting that 23% of UKIP supporters disagreed with the statement. But that compared to 38% of Conservative supporters, 44% of Labour supporters and 47% of Lib Dem supporters.

While it’s important not to exaggerate them, the differences between supporters of different parties – or rather the supporters of one party and the rest – are quite striking.

Yet they appear to exist irrespective of anything the parties themselves have said and done. While UKIP has had the odd problem with a candidate or two in this respect, and there are doubts about some of its allies in the European Parliament, there is nothing whatsoever in UKIP’s rhetoric or policies that could conceivably be labelled anti-Semitic.

While political leaders clearly have some responsibility for those who stand as candidates for, or who simply join, their parties, they can hardly be held responsible for the opinions, however controversial or unsavoury, of those who choose to vote for them.

Whether leaders should distance themselves from such people by asserting that they don’t want their votes is another matter: in UKIP’s case they constitute only a small minority at a time when the party is recruiting way beyond those who see themselves as right-wingers.

Getting better

Ultimately, these differences between voters shouldn’t, perhaps, be allowed to obscure the wider picture, which actually doesn’t look too bleak – especially if one takes change over time into account.

In January 2004, when British voters were presented with the same statement about Jews having too much influence, 18%, rather than today’s 10%, agreed. Back then, it was the Conservative rather than the Labour Party which was led by a Jew – Michael Howard. Asked today whether such a politician would make an equally acceptable prime minister as a member of another faith, six out of ten say yes. In 2004, it was only five out of ten. And now only 6% actively say no. Back then it was 18%. This is surely progress – albeit slower than many would like.

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‘A Newer Labour’, Policy Network, 8 January 2015

It may seem strange to kick off a discussion on what the next Labour government can learn from the last one with a brief excursion back to the 1980s. But anyone interested in statecraft should take a look at what quickly became a seminal study of those years – the late Jim Bulpitt’s The Discipline of the New Democracy: Mrs Thatcher’s Domestic Statecraft.

In it, Bulpitt claimed that successful statecraft could be broken down into four components.

The first is in some ways the most obvious: a winning electoral strategy. This is best achieved by seeing your four- or five-year term as a series of phases: you get the difficult stuff out of the way early on; you get the tangible benefits flowing with at least a year still to run; and you remember to use that year or so to reanimate and re-tool your project so that you can run not just on your record but on a future offer.

The second component is just as important, and that is party management. That means keeping your supporters, and particularly your members, not merely content but connected, helping to ensure that they not only absorb the shocks that are bound to come but also that they will go into bat for you in bad times as well as good.

The third, talking of shocks, is crucial too, and that is governing competence. This is about convincing voters that, in the age of ‘valence politics’, where people care more about sound management than tribal ideologies, you know what you are doing even if they do not particularly like it.

The fourth and final component is political argument hegemony. This means establishing your frame, your worldview, your common sense as the common sense so that anything running counter to it looks foolish, naïve, wrong, impractical, even impossible.

Bulpitt’s definition of statecraft seems to me as a good a guide as any to getting into and, most importantly, staying in government, not least because it points to some of the weaknesses and mistakes of the Blair and Brown era which the next Labour government should try hard to avoid.

It would, of course, be bizarre to suggest that Tony Blair failed to come up with a winning electoral strategy, although it is only fair to point out that the elections of 2001 and 2005 almost won themselves, so benign was the economy and so hopeless were the Tories at the time. But one of the reasons Gordon Brown proved such a big disappointment was because, after portraying himself for so long as Labour’s master-strategist, he seemed to have no discernible game-plan once he entered Number 10.  The argument that he was blown off course by the global financial meltdown seems less convincing than its opposite, namely that without that massive challenge he would simply have drifted to defeat with virtually no achievements as prime minister.

When it came to the party, it is no exaggeration to say that both Blair and Brown allowed Labour’s grassroots to wither and even die.  The discipline and centralisation they brought to the party before 1997 was a necessary advance but by 2001 that model was wearing thin and needed renewing with a more interactive version that might have meant the poor bloody infantry felt more appreciated and more involved. The top-brass avoided paying the price in 2005 but did so in 2010, after which the move toward a more decentralised, community organising model was desperately – perhaps too desperately – needed.

One would be hard pressed to criticise Blair (and, by implication, Brown while he was chancellor) over governing competence.  Yes, there were some difficult moments, particularly at the Home Office and, of course, over Iraq. But, for the most part, his was a government that looked like it was normally in control of events rather than being swept away by them. Brown’s premiership, however, was a different proposition: ‘the election that never was’ (when, three months after becoming prime minister, the new prime minister backed out of calling an early general election which he and his aides had very evidently been preparing for) was followed by a series of disasters (beginning with the loss of data discs containing the personal records of 7.25 million families claiming child benefit) from which the government never really recovered its authority and its equilibrium. Indeed, once again, it took the global financial meltdown to remind voters that the man in charge did, at least occasionally, know best.

As for political argument hegemony, Polly Toynbee is onto something when she argues that neither Blair nor Brown, after brilliantly repositioning Labour in opposition as a force determined to fuse social justice with economic dynamism, ever took the necessary next step – namely, using the power granted them by huge majorities and a decade in office to finish off Thatcherism and persuade people that centrist social democracy was the only game in town. Instead, as she argues, they were so scarred – and so scared – by the seemingly endless defeats of the 1980s and early 1990s that they came to believe that Britain really was a conservative country after all. Any good an active and enabling state could do would, therefore, have to be done by stealth rather than by example after example coupled with constant reminders of why what they were doing made perfect – and common – sense. As a result, when Labour’s economic luck ran out, it proved all-too-easy for the Conservatives to argue that almost everything it had done was a big enormous waste of money which had created the mess that only their state-shrinking austerity programme was capable of clearing up.

If there is, then, a Labour (or, more realistically, a Labour-led) government after May 2015, it should do all it can to learn from its predecessor’s mistakes. This is emphatically not about trashing New Labour in order to emphasise Ed Miliband has moved on: there has arguably been way too much of that already. But it is about statecraft: about a four- or five-year plan to win the next election, albeit one flexible enough to survive contact with the enemy; about not forgetting the party lest it forgets about you; about sometimes doing less but doing it better; and about having sufficient self-belief in your ideas not just to trumpet them from the rooftops but also to trample those of your opponents into the dirt where, in truth, you believe they belong.

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‘The Tories should stop following and start leading’, Bright Blue, 9 December 2014

A day or two before David Cameron made his long-awaited ‘big speech’ on immigration on 28 November, Nick Clegg warned him not to float plans that would see ‘the British people…plunged into a cycle of wild overpromising and inevitable disappointment, their scepticism confirmed.’

That Clegg had a point should surprise no-one. After all, when it comes to ‘wild overpromising’ leading to ‘inevitable disappointment’ which confirms people’s scepticism, he is something of a past master. But although the Prime Minister stepped back from the brink, dropping all talk of entry quotas on EU citizens, it is difficult to escape the feeling that the Conservative Party is increasingly locked into just the kind of cycle that the Deputy Prime Minister described.

If that is the case, then, sadly, the Tories have no-one to blame but themselves. True, research suggests that public anxiety about immigration has increased as the numbers entering the UK have risen. But it also suggests that they take their cues not just from the media but from politicians, especially when, as with immigration, the impact of an issue is largely indirect rather than personal.

Ever since the mid-sixties, when they established a lead over Labour as the best party to handle the issue, the Tories have been tempted to exploit it for electoral purposes, especially (although not exclusively) in opposition. This was never more the case than after 1997, when the Party’s leaders chose to bang on about bogus asylum seekers, to envision Britain turning into ‘a foreign land’, and to blow the dog whistle by insisting (who knew?) that it wasn’t racist to talk about immigration. This, combined with the huge influx of migrants presided over by the Blair government, and the hostile reaction to that influx on the part of many media outlets, helped drive immigration remorselessly up the electorate’s agenda.

Then along came David Cameron who, for a while, confused everyone by virtually refusing to talk about the issue for the first eighteen months of his leadership.  Having been marched to the top of the hill on immigration by his predecessors, those voters for whom it was a particular bugbear felt abandoned and some of them began to look elsewhere, not least to UKIP and Nigel Farage – a man who was more than happy to carry on where Messrs Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard had left off.

When Cameron suddenly returned to the issue towards the end of 2007 – largely in order to shore up the Conservative vote when it looked like Brown might call and win a snap election – most of those voters eventually returned to the fold. But, for all the pre-election promises about reducing net migration to the tens rather than the hundreds of thousands, and for all the tough measures that have been enacted since 2010, the damage had been done. Immigration was now capable of rivalling the economy for top spot as ‘the most important issue facing the country’ (although never, note, the most important issue facing people or their families personally). At one and the same time, Cameron was suspected by those particularly exercised by it of being flakey on the issue.

Still, we are, as they say, where we are. So what is to be done?  First, someone has to shout (or at least whisper) stop! The law of diminishing returns – both practical and rhetorical – has long since set in when it comes to announcing new laws to limit entry and eligibility. But given Labour’s even greater sensitivity to being seen as a soft touch on immigration, and given UKIP’s interest in keeping the pot boiling, it will have to be the Tories that do the shouting (or the whispering).

Indeed, there is a good argument to say that only the Conservatives can do it. Inasmuch as they have a brand that commands respect, it is surely the one best suited to the task of helping to bring the country to its senses on the issue.

The Conservative Party long enjoyed a reputation for hard-headed realism rather than as a maker of far-fetched promises. The brand was all about balancing the protection of national identity, sovereignty and tradition with the reliance of a trading nation and a diplomatic power on relatively open markets and good global relationships. It was also about reconciling a degree of compassion with an understandable concern not to be taken for a ride. All these things make it the ideal rallying point for a sensible stance on immigration in the twenty-first century. Moreover, the Tories have spent a few years following rather than leading on the issue. Surely it’s now time to give leadership a try.

Such leadership arguably isn’t really about particular policy measures, although there may be one or two individual initiatives worth trying. If the government really cares about both control and integration as much as it claims, for instance, then it’s about time that it put its money where its mouth is when it comes to border protection (including counting people in and out) and English language classes. Doing something to reduce UK PLC’s demand for migrant workers by providing British kids not just with the skills they need but with the work ethic and character to make them count could help too.

Just as important though, is working to establish a calm, clear narrative anchored in the practical and the possible – one that treats people as the concerned adults they really are rather than as toddlers whose every tantrum must be appeased. Recent research from British Future suggests this stands a reasonable chance of working – even more so, perhaps, if Conservatives can find it in themselves to go out and really sell the success stories of first and second generation immigrants, to show how the UK’s ethnic minorities are a huge asset when it comes to trading with the rest of the world, and to abandon the idea of a quintessential England in favour of an acknowledgement that our nation – like our language – has and always will thrive by incorporating incomers and the innovations they bring.

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‘Suppose they gave a war and no one came’, Britain Votes 2015 Blog, Hansard Society, 27 November 2014

Suppose they gave a war and no one came?’ became a catchphrase of the US peace movement in the 1960s. What happened over the last week in British politics couldn’t help but remind me of it. Why? Because of the gap between what was supposed to happen to the Labour Party’s poll ratings in the wake of the media storm touched off by ‘that tweet’ by shadow minister (now ex-shadow minister), Emily Thornberry, and what actually happened to them.

Views were – and will doubtless remain – divided on whether the Islington South MP’s decision to share a photo of ‘White Van Dan’s’ flag-festooned house, on the driveway of which sat his now famous Ford Transit, was proof of the disdain secretly felt by Labour MPs for the very class their party was founded to represent. Likewise on whether Ed Miliband’s decision to sack her was the only thing he could do in the circumstances or else it was a ridiculous overreaction which not only gave the story extra legs but confirmed that her real crime was to have let the proverbial cat out of the bag.

On one thing, however, everyone (or at least virtually everyone in the media) was agreed: the whole thing was a disaster for Ed Miliband. Labour’s performance in the Rochester and Strood by-election was bad enough already. But the Twitterstorm which began brewing even before the polling stations had closed somehow managed to turn a drama into a crisis. UKIP, it’s true, got its fair share of attention, but a lot of the coverage in the aftermath revolved around Labour losing the white working class, thereby letting the Tories off lightly when, if anything, the result was even worse for David Cameron than it was for Ed.

One can only imagine how much some of the staff at the Mail and the Sun were looking forward, along withCCHQ, to reading the opinion polls which went into the field over the weekend. After a few days during which, in the wake of the so-called Bonfire Night plot against Ed Miliband, the two biggest parties had drawn neck and neck, this would surely be the point at which the Tories would finally establish a clear lead – one which they would gradually extend over the next five months, thereby slipping safely back into Downing Street, even if only as a minority or coalition government.

Somehow, however, it doesn’t seem to have worked out like that – not yet at least. Rather than dropping back to, or even below, the miserable 29 per cent it scored in 2010, Labour seems to have held its head above water and even, if the latest polls are to be believed, begun to start swimming for the shore again. If a gap has opened up at all (and I rather suspect it hasn’t really, but who knows?), it would appear to be in the opposite direction to which everyone expected.

How can this be? There are at least five possibilities, by no means mutually exclusive but no means equally convincing either.

The first is that it’s too soon to tell – that there is an inevitable lag between bad news for a party and its impact on public opinion; give it a few more days and then you’ll see. This might be true but seems unlikely – normally the impact of events is relatively rapid, only to trail off when people have forgotten about it, as they very quickly do.

The second possibility is that people are impressed by Ed Miliband ruthlessly forcing out a frontbench ally and then telling anyone who’ll listen that he feels respect whenever he sees a white van or a St George’s flag. To which I say (without a shred of hard evidence to back up my opinion, mind), ‘Come off it. Are you serious? Call me back, though, if Ed gets into the cage with White Van Dan and proceeds to beat the crap out of him.’

The third possibility is that some wavering Labour voters of a politically correct cast of mind have taken one look at White Van Dan and his Danifesto, decided that, for some reason, they don’t feel a great deal of affinity with a shaven-headed cage-fighter (or, for that matter, with all his talk of sending them back, the cane and harsher sentences for all those poppy-burners) and have thought better about drifting back to the Lib Dems and the Greens. This isn’t beyond the bounds, although we haven’t really seen a big drop in support for the latter, so I wouldn’t personally put money on it.

The fourth possibility is that UKIP is enjoying a post by-election bounce which – although it’s sometimes easy to forget this amidst all the understandable agonising over its impact on Labour – is hitting the Tories harder than anyone else. As is their wont, they are then going off on one with regards to Europe, which never does them any favours. This seems, relatively speaking, a fairly reasonable assumption, although the UKIP bounce isn’t that big this time; nor are the Tories any more divided after Rochester than they were before it. So, again, ho-hum.

The fifth and final possibility is that the by-election, Emily Thornberry’s fatal tweet and subsequent dismissal, the Danifesto, the front-page splashes, the expert analysis, and Miliband’s tour of the television studios, have barely registered with voters who, quite frankly, have more important things to think about. The media in other words is obsessed with the noise – not least because it produces most of it – but misses the signal, forgetting that it’s the fundamentals (perceptions of competence and credibility on key issues and the state of people’s personal finances) that decide elections, not what’s in the papers. This, of course, is too ridiculous even to contemplate. So I’d best shut up.

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‘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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