‘Should Labour fear “Pasokification”?’, Policy Network, 10 March 2015

The rise of populist radical left parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain pose something of a challenge for academic observers of politics. Our understanding of populism per se has almost certainly been overly influenced by the fact that, before they (and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement) came along, we spent most of our time applying the concept to the radical right. We also became so used to arguing that populism plays on essentially cultural, rather than material, anxieties that it may be hard for us to adjust to the fact that sometimes it can still be about the economy, stupid – which certainly seems to be the case in southern Europe right now.

But these are trivial problems compared to the serious, and possibly existential, challenges which parties like Syriza and Podemos pose to mainstream parties, especially on the centre left. Should the Labour party in Britain be worried not just on behalf of its fellow social democrats but on its own account too?

Given the tendency of British politicians (and the media that covers them) to spend more time weaponising overseas events than actually analysing them, there is one obvious danger Labour faces. This is the fact that any opposition on its part to ‘austerity’ (whatever that actually means) will see it tarred by its opponents and their friends in the media with the same brush as people who can all-too-easily be portrayed as hopelessly unrealistic and dangerously incompetent.

But in some ways this is the least of Labour’s worries. More problematic is the possibility that some of those whose support it will be seeking at the general election will look at what is going on in Greece and Spain with a degree of admiration and even envy. After all, here, at last, are political parties daring to fly in the face of ‘neoliberalism’ and even fight fire with fire. Labour clearly is not prepared to do the same, so set is it on balancing the books in the long term and reassuring business in the short. So why bother voting for such a busted flush? Better, surely, not to bother – or else check out some of the more radical possibilities on its left flank?

Fortunately for Labour, anyone who does that is unlikely to be overly impressed. Syriza and Podemos have both been able to build on both genuine social movements (as opposed to pathetically transparent front organisations) and a pre-existing far-left milieu that, because it was already relatively well established and supported, had at least a minimum degree of credibility and traction.

That is a marked contrast with the far left in the UK, which has long been a standing joke, albeit one that takes itself deadly seriously. Fissiparous and fantastical, and in some cases horribly sexist, it is deeply unappealing – unless, of course, one finds fiftysomething men trying too hard in jeans and leather jackets as attractive and charismatic as they clearly find themselves. Pony tails seem to have worked a treat in Spain recently. But in the UK? I very much doubt it.

Labour is also fortunate because some of those who are still in the upper echelons of the party – take a bow, Ed Balls – were instrumental in ensuring that the UK did not adopt the euro, meaning British radicals are not able to point to the EU as agents of the country’s economic destruction or to our politicians as the cruel oppressors of the Greeks, the Spaniards, the Portuguese, or the Irish. Partly, perhaps, due to our lucky escape from the single currency, it is also the case that public expenditure cuts and a tough labour market for young people in the UK, while a harsh reality, are nowhere near as harsh a reality as they are in those countries.

The weakness of the UK’s far left, and the relative strength of its economy, do not, however, mean that Labour would not benefit from a spot of populism of its own or that it has nothing whatsoever to worry about when it comes to left populism. There are clearly much cuddlier varieties of the latter that do seem to have turned erstwhile and potential Labour voters’ heads.

Most obviously, in Great Britain as a whole, there is the Green party, whose appeal seems largely impervious to concerns about poor leadership and even more poorly conceived policies – primarily because polling suggests its appeal is based on symbolism (a sort of none-of-the-above novelty) rather than substance. Meanwhile in Scotland, there is the Scottish National party – in some ways far more of a threat because it is highly competent as well as (for the most part) cuddly and because its support is sufficiently spatially concentrated to mean the first-past-the-post voting system actually helps rather than hinders it.

The success of the Nats, however, also points to why nobody – yet – should lose sleep over the possible ‘Pasokification’ or’ PSOEfication’ of the Labour party and seek to out-SNP the SNP or, indeed, to out-Green the Greens. One of the reasons that the SNP has been able to mount such an effective attack on the latter’s Scottish franchise is that Labour north of the border had, as its new leader, Jim Murphy, has had the guts and the good sense to admit, become sclerotic, clientelistic and complacent – not as bad, but not a million miles away, from its Greek and (to a lesser extent perhaps) its Spanish counterparts.

South of the border, Labour may have its faults – and they are often most glaring where it has historically been able to weigh its votes rather than count them. But it nevertheless remains a very long way from falling into the state of disrepair and disrepute into which some of its southern European counterparts have fallen.

That said, getting into government in May, because it will mean presiding over cuts rather than protesting against them, will undoubtedly make it more vulnerable to home-grown populists on the left as well as on the right. ‘Sufficient unto the day,’ some Labour people will cry – and understandably so, since victory is hardly a foregone conclusion. But just because you are not sure you will win does not mean you cannot profitably think about how to avoid the downside risks of doing so.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘What kind of PM would Miliband make’, Westminster Policy Institute, Westminster Policy Institute, 6 March 2015

Not that many people are prepared to go into bat for Ed Miliband. But if they do, they almost always make the following observation.

Ed spent a year-and-a-half in the Cabinet between 2008 and 2010, and spent more than five years working as an advisor in the Treasury before he entered parliament in 2005. If he does become Prime Minister after May 7th, then, he will start the job with far more familiarity with government at the highest level than some of his recent predecessors, not least Tony Blair and David Cameron.

Ed’s defenders will also note that, behind the scenes, that wise old bird, Lord Falconer, has been spending serious time working out exactly how Number Ten is going to be run if and when Ed eventually gets there.

So do they have a point? Are experience and preparation really the keys to governing successfully? Or might Ed Miliband possess shortcomings and limitations that no amount of Whitehall nous and careful planning can overcome?

Anyone who talks to those who worked with, near or under Ed, whether in or out of government, soon gets used to being told it can be far more difficult than it should be to get a decision out of him.

Undoubtedly, some of those who complain are actually complaining about the fact that, because Ed ‘does detail’ and isn’t afraid to question common wisdom, any delay in getting stuff signed off has as much to do with the inadequacy of their case, or the way they’ve presented it, as it does with any ‘chronic indecision’ on his part.

That said, tales of the latter are so widespread that it’s hard to believe that there isn’t at least a grain of truth in there somewhere.

The same goes for another frequent moan about Miliband by those who know him well – namely that, while he continually consults others, he’s often totally convinced that he knows best, meaning that he’s prone to spend an awful lot of time listening without really hearing.

And then there’s his tendency, as some see it, to surround himself with a self-cancelling mix of bold blue-sky thinkers, on the one hand, and depressingly cautious campaigners and uninspiring old-hands on the other.

Always remember, say some who’ve seen Ed operate at first-hand, that this is a guy who grew up under Gordon Brown – a guy who, for all his denials, is no less anxious than Brown was about what the papers are saying, who almost relishes a crisis because that is when many people think he is at his best, who, if truth be told, only really values the opinion of insiders rather than outsiders, tired old-pros rather than genuine insurgents. And you only have to look at Brown, their argument runs, to see that simply knowing one’s way around the corridors of power means nothing if you don’t have the skill-set – or the temperament – to make the most of that power when your moment finally comes.

Such criticisms may, though, be overly-harsh and presumptive.

For one thing, Brown seemed to have done surprisingly little detailed preparation before he moved into Number Ten – something which, thanks to Charlie Falconer, and a whole host of pro bono management consultants and various shadow teams, can’t be said of Labour under Ed.

For another, Ed has other qualities that may help make him a better Prime Minister than many imagine. What he sees, for instance, as ‘intellectual self-confidence’ (and others see as good old-fashioned arrogance) means he is capable of sticking to his guns and seeing things through rather than being blown off course by the slightest side- or head-wind.

Somewhat paradoxically, Ed is also – relatively-speaking anyway – an emotionally intelligent politician, meaning that he may be better able than some previous occupants of Number Ten to manage relationships with colleagues and supporters, both in and outside parliament.

Who knows whether these qualities, when weighed against any shortcomings, will be enough to ensure that Ed Miliband can successfully negotiate the myriad challenges that a Labour government – especially one still wanting to do so much at a time when there is so little money – will inevitably face?

Certainly there are some, even within the Party itself – particularly those who have never once wavered in their belief that five years ago Labour elected the wrong brother – who have long since convinced themselves (and who never waste a chance to try to convince others) that, even if by some miracle Ed makes it to Downing Street, he is bound to make a complete hash of things.

Not everybody, however, is quite so pessimistic. Indeed, even some of those sadly willing to admit that Miliband is hardly the perfect candidate haven’t entirely given up on the possibility that he may yet surprise everyone should he get to be PM.

In spite of the best efforts of his many detractors, not least those in the press and in CCHQ, it may not be very long before we all get the chance to find out.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘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).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

‘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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment