‘Who will win the Labour leadership election? It’s a little early to tell’ (with Paul Webb) New Statesman, 22 June 2015

It’s doubtful that voters are paying that much attention to Labour’s leadership contest, but that hasn’t prevented pollsters from beginning to ask them who they think the party should pick. First out of the traps was Ipsos MORI.  Its poll last week suggested that no-one has yet established themselves as the clear favourite in the eyes of the public, with Andy Burnham on 15 per cent, Yvette Cooper on 14 per cent, Liz Kendall on 11 per cent and Jeremy Corbyn on 5 per cent.  Some 18 per cent of respondents claimed not to like any of the choices on offer and 34 per cent said they didn’t know.

Labour supporters, according to the same poll, were rather more likely to have an opinion – and less likely to be negative about the whole thing: although 24 per cent of them still don’t know, only 7 per cent said they didn’t like any of those standing.  Among those expressing a preference, Andy Burnham once again had a narrow 23 per cent-20 per cent lead over Yvette Cooper, with Liz Kendall on 11 per cent and token leftie, Jeremy Corbyn not far behind her on 9 per cent.

In the end, though, it’s not voters, or even that part of the electorate which reckons it will vote Labour, who will decide the contest.  And this time round it won’t be MPs or trade unionists either.  Yes, they’ll have a vote but, in contrast to 2010, it won’t be worth any more than that of any other ordinary member or affiliated supporter of the party.  So while it’s fascinating to see which MPs are declaring for which candidate it’s only by moving away from Westminster and asking grassroots members what they think that we can say anything worthwhile about the state of play at this stage.

And that’s exactly what we’ve done.  As part of a study into the demographics, motivations, opinions and activities of ordinary members funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, some of the fieldwork for which is being conducted by YouGov, we asked nearly 1200 Labour Party members in May who they’d like to see as their next leader.  Since we didn’t know at the time who would make it on to the ballot, and since we didn’t want to restrict their choices in case there were any dark horses out there that no one had noticed, we asked members to write in who they wanted rather than present them with a pre-cooked list of possible runners and riders.  Their answers suggest that there is, indeed, all to play for.

True, Andy Burnham was – yet again – the front-runner.  But he was only the choice of 18 per cent of members – not that far ahead of Chuka Umunna (who hadn’t yet dropped out when we started surveying) on 12 per cent.  Next came Yvette Cooper on 8.5 per cent (ahead of Dan Jarvis, who hadn’t yet ruled himself out when we began) on 5 per cent.  Liz Kendall, almost certainly because she was far less well-known, even by Labour Party members, than most of the others, was named by just 2 per cent – the same figure, incidentally, as the much better-known prince across the pond, David Miliband.  Jeremy Corbyn, by the way, was put forward by just two respondents.*

Still, the most striking thing was that nearly four out of ten grassroots members (37.5 per cent to be precise) said they didn’t yet know who they wanted to succeed Ed Miliband. Add that to the 34 per cent who named somebody outside of the four candidates who eventually made it onto the ballot, and it’s obvious that an awful of a lot of ordinary members’ votes  are still very much up for grabs.

We didn’t, though, just stop at asking the grassroots who they’d like to see leading the party.  We also asked them – and indeed the members of other parties – to rank the qualities they most valued in a leader.  Labour members, it turned out, were much less likely than Tory members to rank strength and authority number one, and much more likely to put having strong beliefs first.  Interestingly, less than 10 per cent of Labour’s grassroots put the ability to unite the party top of their list.  Indeed, being able to unite the nation, being in touch with ordinary people, being a good communicator and appealing to the average voter all came higher, each of them being ranked first by around 15 per cent of members.

Food for thought for all the candidates in a contest that, clearly, is still wide open.  Whatever the pundits or the bookies say, nobody has this thing sewn up – not yet at least.  It could be an interesting summer after all.

* In the original post, we said Mr Corbyn’s name hadn’t been suggested as a replacement for Ed Miliband by any of the 1180 Labour members we surveyed.  We have since recounted the datafile and found two people had named him. Apologies for the error.

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‘Only 15 per cent of Conservative party members would vote to leave the EU’ (with Paul Webb) Telegraph, 15 June 2015

Europe is already impinging, if only indirectly on Labour’s leadership contest. Andy Burnham in particular has suggested the party needs to be careful it doesn’t ‘do a Scotland’ by associating itself so closely with an all-party campaign that it ruins whatever’s left of its reputation with voters who want to leave the EU.

Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, however, has rather less to worry about than her Government when it comes to the immediate party management problems thrown up by an issue that is likely to hog the headlines between now and whenever the Prime Minister judges it best to hold his in-out referendum.

Last week’s row over whether Tory frontbenchers should be expected to toe the government line during the official campaign was a swift reminder to David Cameron that the political capital he won as a result of his unexpected general election victory is a rapidly wasting asset, at least at Westminster. The fact that fifty of his MPs have already moved to set up Conservatives for Britain only reinforces the message that the next year or so could be a very rough ride indeed.

But the Conservative Party isn’t simply composed of those who sit behind Cameron on the green benches at Westminster. It is also, for all the talk of dwindling and ageing membership, a grassroots organisation – one that will have its own take on whether the UK should stay or leave the EU.

The conventional wisdom – very handy if you’re a Eurosceptic Tory MP – is that Conservative Party members out there in the constituencies can’t wait to cast their no votes. Indeed, one of the reasons that the better-off-outers grab so much of the media’s and the PM’s attention is that they’re often assumed to be more representative than he is of what a Tory Andy Burnham would surely refer to as the party’s ‘beating heart.’

Turns out, however, that that’s not the case, at least if a brand new survey of more than five thousand British party members – including twelve hundred grassroots Tories – is anything to go by.

As part of a study into demographics, motivations, opinions and activities of ordinary members funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, some of the fieldwork for which is being conducted by YouGov, we asked whether them a question on the referendum. Their answers throw up a number of interesting points. But two stand out in particular.


First, as we can see from the graph above, Labour’s grassroots members seem to be overwhelmingly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. On the one hand, this is a surely a good thing in party management terms in that exactly the same can be said of the PLP, whose sceptics – particularly of the “hard” rather than the “soft” variety – can be counted on the fingers of one or two hands. On the other hand, it suggests that the party as a whole is considerably less ambivalent about Europe than many of those people who vote for it – let alone those that it desperately needs switch sides if it is to stand any chance of making up ground on the Tories between now and the next general election.

Given this, and the fact that Labour suffered far more seriously than it had hoped at the hands of UKIP this time around, it needs to be very careful that it doesn’t allow too big a gap to open up between its positive stance and the Euroscepticism of those whose votes it will be seeking in 2020. Just because Andy Burnham – supposedly the left-of-centre continuity candidate – is the contender who happens to be making that argument most strongly, doesn’t mean that by definition it’s a silly one.

chart (1)

But perhaps the most interesting finding is summarised in this second graph, which should challenge the idea that the better-off-outers on the Tory benches in the Commons are merely the visible tip of a much bigger iceberg that could sink David Cameron’s dream of uniting his party around a renegotiation package he could sell to the wider electorate.

In fact, fewer than two out of ten of ordinary Conservative party members would vote for the UK to leave the EU regardless of whatever reforms Prime Minister David Cameron manages to obtain in the run-up to a referendum. In marked contrast, nearly two-thirds of them say that their vote depends on the outcome of negotiations, while one in five say they would vote to stay in the EU no matter what.

True, Cameron’s got some work to do in order to convince the majority who can still be convinced. And further number crunching reveals that the more active a Conservative party member is, the more likely he or she is to support getting out come what may. But that has to be qualified by the fact that very, very few grassroots Tories actually do much for their party other than help fund it, especially outside of election campaigns.

The main point, then, still holds. David Cameron – perhaps because his standing in the Conservative Party in the country is almost certainly higher than it is in the Commons, where ideological obsession and/or perceived personal sleights all-too-often trump political gratitude – shouldn’t be too spooked by his sceptics. They’re not going away. But it looks like they’re nowhere near as typical of the average Tory as we, and they, like to think.

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‘Fight or flight: On rationality and resilience in the Labour Party’, IPPR, 1 June 2015

‘Nobody knows anything … Not one person in the entire … field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.’ So wrote the acclaimed screenwriter, William Goldman, about the movie business. Politics is probably not that different.

No one can be sure why Labour lost the general election as badly as it did – not yet anyway. The much-trumpeted exit poll certainly helped make what would otherwise been a few hours of dead television time more exciting than they would have been otherwise. But that poll didn’t include questions that would help us to guess who voted for whom and why. The British Election Study will eventually yield a few clues, but pretty much all we’ve got to go on until then are a couple of post-election surveys for Lord Ashcroft and the TUC, plus a reworking of its pre-election polling by Ipsos MORI.

That said, the message coming out of that research seems pretty clear. Labour had a big lead on the NHS and was generally thought of as more in touch with ordinary people than the Conservatives, who still aren’t completely trusted on the health service and remain, in the eyes of many voters, the party of the rich. But that, in the end, was no barrier to a Tory win for two main reasons: first, David Cameron was seen as a plausible prime minister and Ed Miliband wasn’t; and second, because most people thought the economy was beginning to turn around and didn’t think Labour, given what they thought was its poor track record in government, could be trusted to run it.

If the Labour party were a wholly rational actor, then the course it should take almost suggests itself.

  • It shouldn’t pay too much attention to what those vying for the leadership choose to say right now but should pick whichever of them looks best able to project competence, credibility, and authority.
  • Whatever policies it comes up with should be pitched at, or at least framed around, English middle-income earners and the mythical-but-must-have ‘centre-ground’. The emphasis should be on the concrete, the consensual, the deliverable over the visionary and the radical. Talk of tackling inequality should be replaced with a rhetoric of fairness, which stresses rewarding hard work and making sure that those who do don’t get ripped off by those who won’t.
  • As an opposition, Labour should attack the Tories for messing up, not for callousness, which is already priced into their reputation. And it shouldn’t devote any time, energy or even headspace to building some sort of progressive popular front with ‘wider Labour movement’ or the Greens or, for that matter, the Lib Dems: it would simply push the party into a left-libertarian electoral deadend. Likewise there’s probably (and very frustratingly) little point at this late stage in trying to rescue the reputation of Blair–Brown government.
  • As for Scotland, if it ever comes back to Labour, it will have to do so in its own good time – presumably after years of practical criticism help to erode the SNP’s claim to good governance – and even that might not help, since independence might come first anyway.

But whether Labour can do what it should do is far from certain. After all, it is no more a rational actor than any other political party. It is a living breathing thing – a complex organism capable of intelligent, adaptive behaviour, yet just as apt to rely on muscle-memory and to be blinded by emotion, not least the conviction that its main opponent, since it is so self-evidently morally suspect, can only win by getting its friends in the media to foster false consciousness in an electorate consequently unable to see where its best interests really lie. In a challenging environment – and the fact that it can’t win next time unless we see a swing of 1906 or 1945 proportions is surely a sign that precisely such an environment exists – it sometimes chooses to fight when flight is the better response, and vice versa. Labour is also an institution. It relies on routines, rules, and sources of funding which reduce its room for manoeuvre, making it all-too-liable to avoid doing what it needs to do even when it seems obvious to everyone else.

Still, if the past is any guide to the future then the pessimists shouldn’t have it all their own way. Lest we forget, people who knew everything wrote off Labour in 1935, in 1959 and in 1992. Sometimes sheer resilience counts just as much as rationality.

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‘Persuade the public, frighten the Tories and Labour could win again’, Observer, 24 May 2015

No one really knows who first declared that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. But somebody should tell the LabourParty – and quickly.

It is May 2010. Labour has just gone down to one of its worst-ever defeats. Its crestfallen leader has upped and gone, leaving a shell-shocked party to try to pick up the pieces, figure out what went wrong and choose his successor. The consensus is that the contest should be played long. In the meantime, Harriet Harman will supposedly see to it that the Tories don’t have things all their own way.

As for the candidates, those with a serious chance of winning would struggle to convince the average voter that they’d done much outside politics since graduating from Oxford or Cambridge. Worse, all are complicit in the catastrophe that has befallen the party: none appears to have voiced doubts about the previous leader and his strategy at the time, doubts that they now claim to have harboured all along.

Their takes on why the party lost and what it needs to do to put things right may vary slightly, at least to the cognoscenti, but only in ways that are too easily caricatured by their rivals as Blairite or Brownite, Blue Labour or New Labour or simply sucking up to the unions.

All of them, however, are agreed that the party badly needs to get back in touch with the British people, especially on the issues where it’s lost their confidence – the economy, welfare and immigration.

Sadly, none of the candidates seems to be quite the full package and there is a strong sense that a fair amount of their support comes from people keen to pick the winner so that they can land a plum job, many of whom aren’t altogether sure that their favoured candidate deserves the job, but reckon one of the others would be a disaster.

No one is happy with the system used to choose the winner, either. It affords too much power to the unions, although, given how dependent the party has become on their money, there’s arguably not that much that can be done about it. The system also manages to give Labour MPs too much say over who can stand, yet makes it possible that the winner won’t be able to claim the support of even a plurality, let alone a majority, of the PLP.

The only upside is that the Tories’ vote share was only six or seven percentage points above Labour’s. So if the party picks the right candidate, then it stands an outside chance at the next election, not least because David Cameron may not be around that long.

If Labour makes the wrong choice, however, it only has itself to blame. If your favourite candidate doesn’t get the nod, then you’re entitled to sit on your hands, snipe from the sidelines and let whoever wins fail, instead of doing all you can to make them see sense, or else get rid of them.

You can then say “told you so” and insist they’ve “tested to destruction” the strategy you always knew was never going to work. Don’t bank on anyone listening, though, because, like most political parties, Labour is a deeply dysfunctional organisation in hock to powerful vested interests and struggling to come terms with accelerating economic, social and cultural change.

Sound eerily familiar? It should do. Because it’s happening all over again.

All too often, especially when their vanquished champions swiftly depart the scene – some for the Ovalothers for Ibiza – defeated parties fail to give themselves the time and space to conduct a proper post-mortem. As a result, a debate that, for a moment, looks like it might open up suddenly gets closed down. Or else it’s reduced to soundbites and magic bullet solutions involving this or that policy, this or that segment of the electorate, this or that region.

Telling the party that it has to win in “the south”, or make a comeback in Scotland, or see off Ukip in its “northern heartlands”, stressing that it must reconnect with “business”, “aspirational voters” or “the white working class”, or that salvation lies in persuading “lazy” Labour supporters to turn up on polling day, is at once simplistic and unnecessarily complicated.

It is simplistic because there is no way, only a couple of weeks after a process that involves millions of individuals making up their minds, that we can definitively understand what the hell just happened. The necessary research is going to take time and even then, because it relies mainly on a means of tapping into public opinion that got it badly wrong in the run-up to the election, it may be discounted or even summarily dismissed.

Moreover, Labour, unlike the Conservative party, lacks a mischievous millionaire prepared to pay to package up that research so swiftly and so arrestingly that it will practically demand a response from those contesting the leadership. That was what happened when David Cameron beat David Davis for the Tory equivalent back in 2005 – a contest overseen, it’s worth remembering, by a defeated leader (Michael Howard) who had the good grace to stick around while the party got its shit together and, at long last, elected not the candidate who best reflected the blinkered world-view of its activists but who most worried its main opponent.

Paradoxically, diagnoses and prescriptions that revolve around particular groups or geographical regions are misleadingly complicated. That’s because they risk leading Labour to do exactly what Jon Cruddas has suggested may have helped lose the party the election in the first place, namely attempting to assemble an electoral coalition by micro-targeting different types of voters, rather than nailing down a narrative that makes common sense to a more nebulous, but ultimately much bigger bunch of people.

As long as the public, and not just the party, sees at least one of the candidates as a credible story-teller, then all is not lost. It may sound cynical to say it, but as David Cameron himself has proved (by cutting taxes and welfare benefits, by “banging on about” Europe and immigration, and by getting rid of all the “green crap”), if the eventual winner looks and sounds the part – and is careful to keep talking about “change” and “the centre ground” – then what they do and say for the next three or four months doesn’t actually have to mean that much anyway.

That said, Peter Mandelson, for all that he, like so many of us, has rushed to judgment, is right to declare that, at the very least, that narrative has to weave together “leadership, economic competence and sense of fair play”. But given what happened last time around and what we’ve seen over the past fortnight, it seems highly unlikely that any of the current runners and riders is capable of going much beyond that formula before the result is announced on 12 September.

[Published online – with this title – at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/24/frighten-the-tories-labour-could-win-again]

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‘As Nicola Sturgeon demands more powers, is a second Scottish independence vote inevitable? Yes.’, CityAM, 18 May 2015

The genie is out of the bottle, the toothpaste out of the tube. Pick whichever metaphor you like, but be sure of one thing: it’s a case of “when”, not “if”. The SNP is simply biding its time, waiting for its chance. As soon as Nicola Sturgeon thinks that she stands a decent chance of another crack at independence, she’ll go for it – especially if she can claim a mandate after elections to Holyrood next year. Obviously, it’s not totally up to her. Whoever is in Number Ten at the time will have to consent to it. What choice will they have? Scotland’s right to self-determination has already been established by David Cameron agreeing to hold last year’s referendum. Attempting to deny Scots a second bite at the cherry, or even just trying to delay things, would simply boost the Yes campaign when another vote is eventually held. It will happen – and maybe sooner rather than later.

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‘It’s the economy, stupid: time to regain credibility?’, Progress, 19 May 2015

Restoring Labour’s reputation for economic competence – or perhaps I should say resuscitating or even raising it from the dead – has to be the number one task for whoever becomes its new leader.  It may sound, and it may well be, a lot less sexy than, say, holding endless seminars on how to win back the so-called working class.  But, with all due respect to Blue Labour devotees who argue (not unreasonably, I should add) that identity politics matters too, it is the sine qua non of doing precisely that – indeed, of winning back voters of all classes and none.

There has been a lot of talk over the last week or so of the parallels between 1992 and 2010 – not all of them depressing for those on the centre-left.  After all, John Major’s Tory government, re-elected after unexpectedly crushing Neil Kinnock’s Labour ended up tearing itself apart over Europe and then going down just five years later to one of its biggest ever defeats.

But this forgets one big thing.  Europe may, indeed, have messed mightily with Major’s majority, but what really did for him was Black Wednesday. Britain’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism blew the Conservatives’ hard-earned reputation for competence almost overnight – a political catastrophe that not even Ken Clarke’s near-textbook stewardship of the economy between 1993 and 1997 could do anything about.

Obviously, Black Wednesday was also something of a black swan – an event with massive impact that almost no-one saw coming.  By definition, then, it is not impossible that an economic shock that none of us can imagine right now could come along and do exactly the same to Cameron’s government as Black Wednesday did to Major’s.  But, for the moment it looks unlikely.

That means that Labour’s recovery of its reputation for economic competence is going to be a matter of blood, toil, tears and sweat – a war of attrition than one of movement.

Whether Labour can win that war depends partly, of course, on whether it can capitalise on the government’s failings.  It is easy to forget that Blair and Brown did not reduce the Major’s Tory rabble to rubble just by offering the country what Jon Cruddas would call a more convincing ‘national story’, but by pounding them day-in-and-day-out with relentlessly negative attacks.  By the same token, it was not simply the ‘white heat of technology’ that won it for Wilson.  It was his merciless pillorying of a prime minister who had once been unwise enough to make a self-deprecating joke about needing matchsticks to help him get his head around tricky economic problems.

Attack will only get Labour so far, however.  Ultimately, restoring its reputation will depend on its own offer.  Quite what that is, and how it differs from Ed Miliband’s, will need working out.  But, whatever it is, it needs to be worked out quickly.  Fearing hostages to fortune, and wanting to keep as much of the labour movement as possible on board for as long as possible, the two Eds only came up with something vaguely coherent a year or so out from May 2015.  It turned out to be way too little – and, just as importantly, way too late.

Nor was the two Eds’ offer, or indeed their critique of what the Conservatives were doing, ever couched in words that made easy, common sense to most voters.  Where, for instance, was the Labour equivalent of George Osborne’s masterly ‘maxed out the nation’s credit card’?  And what could it be between now and 2020?

Finally, whoever becomes leader needs to decide what he or she is going to do and say about the accusation which that phrase so cruelly embodies.

It is not easy: it is clearly economically illiterate, and also politically risky, to admit that the last Labour government ’overspent’ and somehow got us into the mess that in reality was caused by a global financial crisis and the need to avert what might otherwise have been a full-blown depression.

Sadly, however, that is what far too many voters now believe.  And the chances of getting them to believe anything else at this stage seem remote in the extreme.  Trying to do so is tantamount to telling them that they are wrong and you are right – never a great way to win elections.

Maybe, then, to quote Blair’s public opinion guru, Philip Gould, it is time to ‘concede and move on’.  There cannot be many of us who, in order to repair a relationship we really care about, have never said sorry even though we weren’t really sure that we were ever really in the wrong.

For those who can’t bear the thought of reducing high politics to the way we conduct our private lives, we should end by returning to the prime minister who first coined the phrase ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’.

Winston Churchill, addressing the Commons after taking on the top job after the debacle in Norway in May 1940, went on to say something that, seventy-five years later, should resonate with every member of the Labour Party. ‘You ask’, he intoned, ‘what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror.  Victory, however long and hard the road may be. For without victory there is no survival.’

[Originally published at http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2015/05/19/its-the-economy-stupid-time-to-regain-credibility/]

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‘What should Cameron do next’, Conservative Home, 17 May 2015

‘The problems of victory’, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in November 1942, ‘are more agreeable than the problems of defeat, but they are no less difficult.’

As a pragmatist and a realist, David Cameron almost certainly realises this is the case. May 7th was a triumph – a vindication even. But the majority he won was narrow. And it doesn’t simply wash away all his problems. Indeed it makes some of them even worse.

The parliamentary party, for instance, may be easier to manage because jobs can be given to Tories rather than Lib Dems. But gratitude is one of politics’ most perishable commodities. And many Conservative ultras are about to discover that the reason they can’t get what they want (on climate change and energy policy, on welfare cuts, on immigration, on terrorism, on human rights, on grammar schools, on trade union reforms, and on EVEL/Scotland) has far less to do with their former coalition partners than it does with parliamentary, legal, international, and electoral realities.

The PM, one suspects, hardly needs anyone to tell him this. Or to remind him that his mandate is too small and shaky for him to hare off in the direction that some of his more zealous supporters (not least those who were busy sharpening their knives for him before his stunning victory) will demand. Whatever modernisation meant, it meant not departing too far, rhetorically at least, from the centre-ground.

With that in mind, what Mr Cameron needs to do now is to work out what, in his heart of hearts, he really wants as his legacy and then focus, laser-like, on that. It speaks volumes that so many of us still aren’t entirely sure what that ‘that’ actually is. Tell us, Prime Minister. Then get cracking. The clock’s already ticking.

[Originally published at http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2015/05/we-ask-our-panel-what-should-cameron-do-next.html]

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