‘The virus is changing politics, but there are opportunities as well as risks’, Times, 13 May 2020.

It’s an ill wind, they say, that blows nobody any good. And the coronavirus crisis is no exception. It’s too early to tell how – or how much – it will change UK politics in the long term. But we can at least make some educated guesses about the short- to medium-term opportunities and threats it presents to the Conservative government and to its Labour opposition.

Both the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election proved that Boris Johnson is a phenomenally gifted campaigner. But doubts remained – even among his colleagues – about his capacity to handle the infinitely harder task of actually running the country.

Covid-19 provides him with the chance to put an end to those doubts once and for all – and to show a sceptical electorate that he’s not just someone they can’t help but like but someone they can trust as well.

More broadly, the crisis provides the chance for the Conservatives to convince people that the NHS really is safe in their hands – something they’ve had an awful lot of trouble doing since it was created by Labour nearly three-quarters of a century ago.

Then there is the opportunity that the crisis gives the Conservatives to hit the reset button on a relationship with the BBC that was rapidly becoming poisonous, as well as on plans to reform immigration which looked set to cause major disruption to the labour market – especially in low-paid but crucial sectors like social care.

And talking of social care, the coronavirus crisis presents the government with the perfect opportunity to grasp a nettle that it might otherwise have shied away from.

Truly profound changes in the UK often come about not as the result of cross-party initiatives but as a result of one or other of the two main parties making the running, leaving the other with nothing else to do but to play catch-up.

If they can do it, knitting together health and social care could pay as big an electoral dividend for the Conservatives as creating the NHS has always done for Labour.

Finally, the obvious need to repair the public finances after the crisis has passed presents the Conservative Party with another opportunity – the chance to shed its reputation as the party of austerity by raising (and just as importantly reforming) taxation instead of hitting the poorest hardest with yet more, largely counterproductive spending cuts.

None of this is to say, of course, that Covid-19 doesn’t present a serious threat to the party. For one thing, any post-mortem that takes place could end up revealing that its leader really was as reckless, as lazy and as uninterested in the detailed business of government as his critics feared.

And it could end up reminding voters big-time that, during a decade in power, the Conservatives spent far too little on the NHS.

There is also a clear and present danger that the party’s fixation with getting Brexit done could see the UK refuse to extend transition and, just as it’s struggling to get back on its feet again, effectively crash out of the single market and customs union without having secured some sort of deal with the EU.

Nor is there any guarantee that the Conservatives will eschew austerity as a means of balancing the books in the post-Covid-19 era, so blowing whatever opportunity they might have had to make a reality of their promise to level up Britain.

By the same token, they could easily fall back into banging on about immigration and BBC bias. Old habits, after all, die hard.

The same, of course, goes for Labour. Just as many in the party assumed, after the financial crash and then after nearly a decade of austerity, that the facts of life were socialist, the party could all too easily place too much faith in the idea that the public, having now seen what an active and high spending state can do, will want it to do more in perpetuity.

It is also entirely possible that any public enquiries into the UK’s handling of Covid-19 don’t end up doing the Conservatives as much damage as some suppose they will.

It remains entirely possible that voters, having decided for now that the government is making a reasonable fist of a very challenging situation, don’t change their mind, allowing Johnson and his colleagues a relatively easy ride back into office in 2024.

The coronavirus crisis also presents Labour with a more immediate threat, namely that very few voters are listening to what it has to say at precisely the time – just after a change of leader – that it might have been hoping to garner a little more of their attention.

That said, the crisis nevertheless presents Labour with some opportunities – and they go beyond distracting the electorate from what might otherwise have been a seriously damaging renewal of factional infighting following the leak of a deeply embarrassing internal report a couple of weeks ago.

Most obviously, assuming that report can indeed be made to go away, everything prior to Covid-19 will seem like a very distant memory.

That includes not just the Corbyn era but many of those faces associated with it. Meanwhile, their successors in the shadow cabinet will have more than enough time, given how little legislation is likely to be passing through parliament any time soon, to read themselves properly into their portfolios.

And while, as we have noted, there is a danger of Labour presuming too much about the state spending and intervention occasioned by the virus inevitably creating a more benign environment for a social democratic party, it still remains possible, at the very least.

Finally, there is the fact that the crisis could put more of a premium on competence than on charisma – which should suit Labour’s new leader.

Keir Starmer’s constructive, measured and forensic style might well make him a formidable opponent not just in the weeks and months but also in the years to come.

Given the double-digit swing he needs to win an overall majority, his colleagues will be hoping and praying that’s the case.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-virus-is-changing-politics-but-there-are-opportunities-as-well-as-risks-kg9trpxj8

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‘Does Boris Johnson have the Conservative Party’s permission to extend transition?’, with Hovid Minasyan, 30 April, UK in a Changing Europe.

A new survey from Deltapoll has confirmed what others have already pointed to – namely that a majority of the public, given the outbreak of Covid-19, are now in favour of extending the UK’s transition out of the EU’s single market and customs union.

True, there is a big difference on the issue between Remain and Leave voters, but even 39% of those who voted to quit the EU in 2016 and voted for the Conservatives in 2019 agree.

So although his chief Brexit negotiator continues to insist he won’t be doing so, Boris Johnson has the general public’s permission to extend transition. But does he have permission from a group to which he’s likely to pay just as much attention – Parliament and, in particular, his own MPs?

That’s a question that’s difficult to answer directly. But we can make an educated guess by looking in more depth at the parliamentary Conservative Party returned to the Commons in 2019.

The 2016 referendum saw almost every front- and back-bencher then sitting in Parliament, as well as many destined to join them, adopt a position on the issue. A substantial minority, particularly in the Conservative Party, plumped for Leave, but the majority went for Remain.

The public’s vote to leave the EU, therefore, meant that a lot of folk at Westminster had, in effect, picked the wrong team.

Some of them stuck to their guns – particularly if they represented opposition parties. Others – particularly if they were Conservative MPs – very quickly decided to get with the programme.

A new dataset, compiled at Yale University, allows us to see how things shook out.

The dataset looks at the stance that MPs elected in the 2019 election cycle took on Brexit in 2016, regardless of whether or not they were MPs during the referendum. It uses a combination of social media, MPs’ personal websites, newspaper interviews, and media reports.

Some MPs remain a mystery but not many: the dataset captured 354 of the 365 Conservative MPs elected in 2019, for instance.

So what of the trends? The most obvious is that, although Parliament became significantly more pro-Leave by 2019, this was entirely due to a massive shift within the parliamentary Conservative Party.

Almost all Conservative MPs who were pro-Remain in 2016 left Parliament in 2017 or 2019 or – in the case of nearly all of the 129 Conservative Remainers who were elected to the Commons in 2019 – had shifted to either vocally or tacitly supporting Brexit.

Some 98% of current Labour MPs qualify as Remainers, as the ten Labour MPs who had supported leaving in 2016 dwindled to just three: four chose not to stand and three lost their seats.

All MPs representing the smaller parties were Remainers in 2016, while all DUP MPs were Leavers. On the other hand, only 36% of current Conservative MPs were Remainers back in 2016 – a 21 percentage point drop on the figure for those elected in 2015 and a similarly big change even from those elected in 2017.As to what caused that drop, the numbers tell several stories.

Firstly, the Conservatives won 59 seats from other parties, most of which were previously represented by MPs who had supported Remain in 2016. Pro-leave Conservatives also won 43 seats from pro-Remain Conservatives.

In large part, however, this process of replacement wasn’t needed to effect the change that a party leadership now committed to Brexit at apparently any cost required.

That’s because, according to the Yale dataset, nearly all of those Conservative MPs (96% to be exact) who were elected in 2019 but who supported Remain in 2016 changed their tune and decided to toe the party line and support Brexit.

Why they decided to do so is open to debate. Maybe they came to believe that to do anything else in the light of the referendum result – albeit a result that went against them – would have been anti-democratic.

Maybe, having listened to the arguments that raged in the two-and-a-half years following the referendum, they finally found themselves persuaded that Brexit would be best for Britain.

Or maybe they simply and swiftly realised which way their bread was buttered. After all, success in politics requires a dash of idealism but an even bigger dollop of realism.

That realism, however, may also extend to sympathy for the idea that, in the face of the coronavirus crisis, the UK and the EU cannot hope to come to a satisfactory deal by the end of this year.

So let us assume, for the sake of argument, that all of the 129 Conservative MPs currently sitting in the Commons who, according to the Yale dataset, originally supported Remain would, irrespective of their post-referendum conversion to Brexit, nevertheless vote to extend transition.

Let’s also assume that the proportion of the 225 Conservative MPs who, according to the Yale dataset, voted Leave in 2016 but might now be prepared to support extending transition matches the 39% of their Conservative and Leave voting counterparts in the general public.

Add the resulting total of 88 MPs to the 129 and ‘extend’ beats ‘don’t extend’ by 217 to 137.

Good news for Johnson? Hardly: 137 potential rebels is a very worrying figure indeed, dwarfing the government’s effective working majority of 87.

That said, it might be an overestimate: using another recent attempt to calculate the Leave-Remain balance on the Conservative benches would put the figure nearer 120 than 140.

Moreover, if Johnson does ultimately opt to extend, and assuming he goes down the legislative route to do so, then he would whip his MPs hard to support him.

That, and the fact that some of the potential rebels will be part of the payroll vote, might reduce that worrying figure still further.

And ultimately, were the PM to change his mind about extending transition, he would also be able to rely on the support of opposition MPs who, as the Yale dataset confirms, are (or at least were) Remainers almost to a man and woman.

In short, Johnson will be able to get permission to extend from Parliament – and from the majority of his Conservative colleagues – as well as the public. The $64,000 question now is will he seek it?

Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/does-boris-johnson-have-the-conservative-partys-permission-to-extend-transition/

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‘A Brexit extension would face serious opposition even during coronavirus’, Financial Times, 11 April 2020

More often than not, the burden of proof for a major shift in policy lies with those advocating change rather than with those resisting it. But what if the arguments in favour of that shift seem so self-evident to its advocates that they don’t bother to anticipate the arguments that will be mounted against them?

Forewarned, they say, is forearmed. So for those who believe that, in the light of Covid-19, the UK should ask for an extension to its transition out of the EU — pushing off the end of December deadline for a deal on the future relationship — what are the arguments Brexiters are likely to deploy against them?

Some sense of those arguments can be obtained by responses to an invitation I issued online last week for objectors to explain why transition shouldn’t be extended — a thought experiment that effectively reverses the burden of proof by transferring it from those advocating change to those resisting it.

My invitation elicited hundreds of responses.

Perhaps inevitably, some purported to detect what they saw as yet another example of Remainers’ inability to come to terms with the fact of Britain leaving the EU — a variant of a more widely-held suspicion that any extension of transition represents yet another attempt by those opposed to Brexit to try to block it.

The aim here is not to squash or even critique those suspicions.

That, after all, is for advocates of extension, who will need to take on objections rather than assuming that what they see as the logic of their position will ultimately prevail. That would be to risk repeating the mistake made by those backing Remain in the 2016 referendum.

On Thursday the government offered an official response to a petition to extend that appeared to give no ground: “We will be recovering economic and political independence at the end of the year, which the British people voted for,” said the statement from the Cabinet Office.

And while some high-profile Brexit supporters have begun to accept the idea, others have not.

One common argument against extending transition is that there is still plenty of time to conduct negotiations with the EU.

While face-to-face meetings are clearly impossible during the coronavirus pandemic, talks can, they claim, be conducted just as well by videoconferencing — especially since the civil servants participating in them, are not, they say, also involved in the battle against coronavirus.

There also appears to be a widespread belief among Brexiters that, rather than proving a distraction, the coronavirus crisis could even concentrate the minds of the two sides.

In any case, they claim, since any agreement with the EU is bound to be made at the last minute, what on earth is the point of putting off that last minute for a year or two?

Many are convinced, too, that the coronavirus crisis has left the EU distracted, divided and weakened, meaning that now is exactly the right time for the UK to secure a good deal.

There are plenty of Brexiters, of course, who don’t want a deal at all (and/or think the EU will grant one only on punitive terms), and believe that keeping to the current timetable will make their preferred departure on World Trade Organization terms all but inevitable.

They also argue that, since the UK economy will be on its knees in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, it would be pointless to try to rebuild it within the single market and the customs union only to then have to rebuild it again once any extended transition comes to an end.

Better, they say, to rip the dressing off the wound, end any damaging uncertainty, and free the British economy from EU regulations (for example on state aid) and the burden of further payments to Brussels so that the country can start enjoying what they see as the full benefits of Brexit sooner rather than later.

Related to this is an argument that, since the entire British (and EU) economy will have ground to a halt by the end of the year anyway, any economic shocks and logistical disruption caused by an abrupt UK departure from transition will supposedly be less noticeable and less costly now than they might have been prior to the coronavirus crisis.

And then there is the pervasive belief that the current crisis has shown quite how dysfunctional, disorganised, and even downright malign the EU really is.

This not only confirms Brexiters’ belief that the UK was right to leave but leads them to worry that, unless transition ends in 2020, the British government will be liable to hand over additional funds to bail out the eurozone or member states particularly badly hit by Covid-19.

In any case, they stress, ending the transition at the end of 2020 was a Conservative manifesto promise and any breach would erode public trust in the government at a time when that trust is vital to see off Covid-19. Such a betrayal would also be tantamount to an admission that the UK is unable to go it alone.

Indeed, for some Brexiters, this crisis is a reminder that the UK needs to reduce or even end its reliance on other countries to provide it with food, manufactures and pharmaceuticals.

Polling now shows that two-thirds of the public support extending the transition period beyond the end of this year, although there is disagreement about how long, with 29 per cent favouring a year or less, and 38 per cent willing to wait as long as it takes. But be in no doubt, such a decision is not inevitable.

People like the new Labour party leader Keir Starmer, if they believe an extension may well prove necessary, need to come up with some effective arguments — and since the real deadline is at the end of June, the last moment when a change to the timetable can be legally agreed, they need to do so soon.


Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/97d9d574-78e9-11ea-bd25-7fd923850377 


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‘Covid-19 and the transition period’, UK in a Changing Europe, 19 March 2020.

Last year, some six million people signed a petition on Parliament’s website calling for the revocation of Article 50 and for the UK to remain in the European Union.

But right now, as the covid-19 crisis threatens to overwhelm the country’s capacity to cope on all sorts of levels and yet the government continues (at least officially) to rule out extending the transition period beyond the end of this year, fewer than twelve thousand (at the time of writing) have gone on to the same website to sign a petition calling on them to do just that.

By way of comparison, that’s less than number who’ve signed one calling on the government to ‘make pet theft crime a specific offence with custodial sentences.’

What – apart, of course, from the fact that we’re supposedly a nation of animal lovers – might account for that difference?

The answer’s not immediately obvious. After all – and a YouGov poll supports this – it seems intuitively reasonable to assume that the so-called Remoaners who wanted to stop Brexit last year would be particularly keen to avoid an unduly abrupt end to transition.

As former Chancellor Alistair Darling (someone who knows a thing or two about preventing a crisis turning into a catastrophe) put it, ‘it’s madness to contemplate shooting yourself in the foot on an entirely man-made political decision at a time when you don’t need to do that’. Who knows, even some Leavers may concede he has a point?

Thinking a little harder about why so few people, and particularly so few ardent Remainers, have signed the petition, a number of explanations spring to mind. Most obviously, when it comes to the two petitions we’re admittedly talking about a difference not of degree but of kind.

For Remainers, anyway, last year’s petition was existential – in or out, all or nothing. This year’s can do little more than postpone the inevitable. As such, it’s clearly less likely to ignite the passion of your average Europhile.

And then there’s the fact that last year’s petition ultimately made no difference. ‘If the government didn’t allow over six million signatures to change its mind’, some will ask, ‘then what’s the point’?

Sure, after any petition gathers over one hundred thousand signatures it is considered for a debate in parliament. But that debate happened, and made no difference.

The petition to delay transition reached ten thousand signatures on the night of 17/18 March, which means that, while it has a way to go to reach the threshold for debate, it does at least require a response from government – one that should (in normal times anyway) come within 21 days.

But as the Hansard Society’s Brigid Fowler has pointed out, there is nothing to stop said response saying anything more than ‘s.33 EU (WA) Act 2020 makes UK government agreement to a transition extension unlawful.’

Most people won’t have a clue about that of course. But they probably don’t have to in order to be sceptical as to whether a government response will achieve much in the way of concrete action.

Another possibility is that people reckon that said extension is going to happen anyway. It makes such obvious sense in the circumstances – and, if they’re fans of the always impeccably well-informed Peter Foster  – they may have read that some in the government are strongly hinting at just that.

Persuasive? Not totally – and not just because the entire population don’t read Peter’s tweets, even when they so obviously should do. After all, the same air of inevitability surrounded the government’s decision on 18 March to close schools.

Of course, few if any of those who signed that petition were likely to have worried that it might spark a counter-reaction – something that could perhaps be a concern among those who’d like to see the transition extended but fear that actively campaigning for it might mobilize Brexiteer opinion against it.

All a bit reminiscent of a victim of coercive control treading on egg-shells lest they set off their angry other-half, but similarly understandable perhaps.

The same consideration might be preventing high-profile, pro-European politicians supporting the postpone petition, as they did on the Article 50/Remain one last year, and therefore failing to provide an important cue for ordinary folk to go sign it.

And those same politicians might also be (equally understandably) worried that adding their voice to the cause might see them accused of politicising the covid-19 crisis – an accusation that no sensible person in public life wants to have to face right now.

But, in the end, perhaps, none of the above explanations trump the most obvious one – namely that none of us right now can really think of anything much else than the immediate threat posed by covid-19.

As a result, the end of transition (assuming we’re aware in the first place that Brexit’s not really ‘done’ without it ending) seems – quite wrongly of course – a very long way away indeed.

An earlier version of this post was published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/covid-19-and-the-transition-period/


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‘Level up: Boosting the regions might mean levelling down London’ (with Phil Cowley), CityAM, 12 March 2020.

Except for updates on the coronavirus, no ministerial appearance these days is complete without mention of the government’s professed intention to “level up”.

This seems to mean a desire to do something — usually something to do with infrastructure spending — for the so-called “left-behind” places that voted Leave in 2016, and especially those “red wall” seats that flipped to the Conservatives at last year’s General Election. As a concept, it might be wonderful. As a phrase, it can grate a little — especially after its near constant repetition.

And yet, we have to admit, albeit through gritted teeth, it is quite clever. It conveys the impression that things are great in most parts of the country, and that all that’s needed to ensure the milk and honey flows to each and every corner of the land is a bit of long-overdue TLC from a government that, unlike its predecessors, really “gets it”.

Voters, though, may be more sceptical. Most of us tend to be wary of the idea that you can get something for nothing. Indeed, after being told for years — especially by the Tories — to think of the government’s accounts in terms of household finances, it would hardly be surprising if people see spending in zero-sum terms.

If you’re not raising taxes, and you say that you don’t want to borrow too much more, then additional spending in one area presumably has to come at the expense of spending in another.

And that area may well be London, given that we’ve also been told for years how much better funded Britain’s biggest city is than other parts of the country, especially in terms of transport and other infrastructure, than other parts of the country. Any sustained effort to reduce regional inequalities may well cost the capital some of the alleged government largesse that it has been used to recently.

That, at least, is the fear of many of London’s council leaders and politicians — hence the recent cries of pain from London Councils, the body representing the capital’s 32 boroughs and the City of London, and the think tank Centre for London. Peter John, chair of London Councils, even warned that ambitions to level up the country could easily descend into what he called “a crude ‘level London down’ agenda”.

But what do Londoners think? At the Mile End Institute, part of Queen Mary University of London, we decided to test whether that assumption is shared by the city’s inhabitants — and whether they thought that London losing out as a result of levelling up was or wasn’t acceptable. Our survey ran just last week and involved a representative sample of 1,002 Londoners.

On the whole, the capital’s residents can see what is coming. They are fairly (some would say surprisingly) resigned to the fact that levelling up will indeed see London receive less government money than in the past.

A third of them (33 per cent) confess that they don’t know, but that leaves almost half (44 per cent) who believe London will lose out — twice as many as the 22 per cent who believe it won’t.

This belief is shared by almost all demographic groups — men, women, working-class, middle-class, white, black and minority ethnic, and those living within inner and outer London. There is some difference by age: younger Londoners are less sure that the city will lose out, older ones more sure. But even among the young, more think London will suffer than not.

And yet, people don’t seem overly concerned about this. When we asked whether it would be a problem if London lost out on government funding, a full 43 per cent said that it would be acceptable, compared to just 31 per cent who thought not.

Again, this view — call it altruism, call it simple resignation, call it what you will — is widely shared regardless of demographic differences, although older voters are less keen.

Of course, it’s one thing to say that you think you might lose out on something and that you don’t mind too much if you do, and quite another to know how you will actually feel about it when it happens. As Joni Mitchell famously put it, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

But for the moment, if the Johnson government feels that it needs to spend less on London in order to help poorer parts of the country, then it doesn’t look like it will face too much resistance.

Originally published at https://www.cityam.com/level-down-london/

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‘Poll reveals tensions in new Tory coalition’, Unherd, 11 March 2020.

One of the downsides of doing surveys is that — more often than not, and certainly more often than you’d like — they end up pointing to the bleedin’ obvious. You know: ‘Poll reveals people like free stuff, hate politicians’ – that sort of thing. File under No Shit Sherlock, right?

Well not entirely. There’s often value in providing evidence for something we all guess is probably true but couldn’t really prove is actually the case.

That’s what emerges from some new pre-budget polling conducted by Portland. They compared the views of five hundred senior business people with a thousand people who voted Tory in 2019, with the latter evenly divided between those living in constituencies where a majority of voters supported Leave or Remain back in 2016.

The results are a neat showcase of the political tensions within the new Tory coalition.

Across the majority of questions relating mainly to the economy, there wasn’t much of a difference between 2019 Tory voters whether they lived in places like Bolsover or Beaconsfield. But there were some pretty sizable contrasts between those voters and Business people — defined, by the way, as a director or senior manager working in a private sector organisation employing more than 250 people and with an income of above £70,000 per annum.

As Portland’s Nick Hargrave puts it: ‘While Business wants government to get out of the way — a majority of Conservative voters across the board want the Government to tax more, spend more and intervene more.’

No great surprise there, but interesting, nonetheless – not least because it rather confirms what many of us suspected.

We’re told anyway that the government ‘gets it’ — namely that it understands that one of the messages coming out of the 2016 referendum was that things have to change, especially for people in those parts of the country characterised as ‘left-behind’.

The poll suggests that business hasn’t yet woken up to this brave new world — one in which neoliberalism is apparently about to give way to an activist enabling state. Putting it bluntly, Boris may be about to ‘fuck business’ but business clearly isn’t looking forward to the experience.

Dig a little deeper, and some additional strains begin to appear not just between Business, on the one hand, and the Government’s voters, on the other, but between Beaconsfield and Bolsover, too.

On public spending and whether it’s too high, a plurality of business people (45 per cent) think it is; Conservative voters are rather less inclined to think so — and there’s an appreciable gap between the 37 per cent of those living in Remain constituencies and the 29 per cent of those living in the land of leave.

But it’s on immigration that the difference between Beaconsfield and Bolsover is most striking. Like business people (again), only around a quarter of Conservative voters in Remain constituencies (23 per cent) put immigration in their top three most important issues — compared to getting on for half (44 per cent) of Conservative voters living in Leave seats.

And when it comes to the question of whether the government should (as it claims) reduce low-skilled immigration, the gap is similarly yawning. As a whole, some three quarters of 2019 Tory voters want that to happen, with only a quarter opposed. But the proportion of those opposed to the idea rises to a third (33 per cent) of those living in Remain constituencies and drops to just well under a fifth (15 per cent) when we look at those in Leave Seats.

Those differences aren’t of course merely geographical, they are ideological and almost certainly intersect most strongly with further and higher education. But they matter — and may matter more if consequent labour shortages begin to make life awkward for some but not noticeably better for others.

Keeping hold of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ while preserving the Tories’ traditional grip on those parts of the country which are not only more comfortably off but also more comfortable with cultural change and diversity won’t be a piece of cake — or, indeed, one that Boris Johnson can necessarily have and eat it too.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/thepost/poll-reveals-tensions-ahead-in-tory-coalition/

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‘Wash your hands, Big Brother is watching you’, Times, 9 March 2020.

Prepare to be disgusted, seriously disgusted. But don’t worry, it’ll do you good, especially now that we’re all being urged to do our bit in the battle against coronavirus. Trust me, I’m a doctor.

OK, I’m not a real doctor. I haven’t got a medical qualification, only a PhD. And, OK, it’s in political rather than proper science.

I can, however, claim a degree of expertise in what I’m talking about — all of it gained from over half a century of painstaking observation of men’s toilet habits.

I tend not to waste too much time in the gents but this is the important bit – I never, ever leave without washing my hands.

It’s that last bit that makes me unusual, at least among men, according, that is, to a survey five years ago that suggested fewer than four out of ten men washed their hands after going to the toilet — a figure that rose to six out of ten for women.

These are not the only statistics available, it should be said. A Gallup survey of 64,000 respondents worldwide paints a slightly more optimistic picture, at least if you’re British.

Only 50 per cent of Dutch people surveyed said that they wash their hands compared with the super-clean Saudis at 94 per cent and 75 per cent of Britons (a figure, incidentally which puts us just about on a par with the Irish and the Americans).

Saying we do something, however, is not the same as actually doing it. What survey researchers refer to as “social desirability bias” — our tendency to give the responses we think we should be giving them rather than the ones that truly reflect our behaviour or opinions — makes it unlikely that three-quarters of us are actually doing what both personal and collective hygiene demands.

Indeed (and here’s where the half-century of participant observation comes in), I’d like to call (bull)shit on that figure here and now. I’ve seen what men do after they’ve zipped up or, even worse, done what my grandmother would have called “their business”. And it isn’t pretty. Many, maybe even most, blokes head straight for the door, after which, they’re presumably shaking your hand, giving you back your change, serving you food, etc.

Of course, actually getting out of said door in many cases involves pulling at some kind of handle. This is a nightmare for those of us who do observe the post-pee and/or pooh niceties, unless it’s wintertime and we’re carrying gloves or maybe wearing an overcoat with helpfully long sleeves.

It’s also the reason why, last week, a health information campaign featuring a dirty door handle was chosen after tests showed that 96 per cent of people remembered it, compared with 85 per cent recalling one that advised them simply to wash their hands. “Information works on a cognitive level. But disgust works on an emotional level,” a source (presumably not a source of infection) told The Times last week.

But are there more positive nudges that could be used in the battle to persuade us to do the right thing? Probably yes.

In an academic article, kindly provided me by a fellow Tweeter, the researchers not only confirm that a substantial minority of people (especially men) don’t wash their hands after using the loo but also take us through why it’s hard to get precise data on the topic, university ethics committees being unsurprisingly unenthusiastic about proposals that suggest setting up CCTV in the spaces in question.

More importantly, not least because more handwashing appears to reduce levels of respiratory illnesses by over a fifth, they explore some simple and cheap (in the best sense of the word) tricks and techniques to get us to wash our hands drawn from behavioural psychology and economics.

So what works? Believe it or not putting a decal of a pair of eyes on the mirror above the sinks has an effect: the fact that Big Brother (or sister) is watching you, and, what’s more, you know they’re watching, isn’t always a bad thing, perhaps.

If you’re not keen on surveillance, however, then try citrus as an alternative. Sprayed intermittently around the sink, it too appears to raise rates of handwashing.

And finally, lines of large, red, arrow-shaped stickers directing you, along the floor, from the stalls and the urinals to the sink, also encouraged people to do what’s good for them and what’s good for the rest of us, too.

You may laugh. Indeed, let’s hope you do. After all, you’re more likely to remember something funny than something purely factual conveyed with a wagging finger. But this is also serious stuff and with incidences of Covid-19 on the rise daily, we’re talking deadly serious.

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‘Research with party members offers an important clue about how to heal Brexit divisions’, The Conversation, 5 February 2020.

Anyone wanting to understand post-Brexit Britain should make a beeline for a report published towards the end of last year by The Policy Institute at King’s College London. It draws a crucial distinction between two modern phenomena. On one hand there is affective polarisation – described in the report as “when individuals begin to segregate themselves socially and to distrust and dislike people from the opposing side, irrespective of whether they disagree on matters of policy”. On the other is issue polarisation – “the difference in values and attitudes on one or more issues”.

After sifting the survey evidence, the report’s authors find that “people on both sides of the Brexit vote dislike the opposing side intensely even though they don’t necessarily disagree with their positions on salient issues”.

In other words, while there’s plenty of evidence of affective polarisation, there’s much less for issue polarisation. This provides at least a degree of comfort for those of us who hope the UK can somehow move on from the deeply divisive politics of the past four years.

That’s not to say, of course, that moving on will be easy. And it will, in part, depend on how the nation’s politicos respond in the coming years. As the Policy Institute’s report notes: “voters to some extent take cues from party platforms and leaders, so polarisation among political leaders and activists can spread to the electorate.”

And that’s what makes the views of Britain’s rank-and-file party members important. While they don’t necessarily directly determine the tone and the direction their parties take, they do have an indirect and sometimes pretty immediate influence on them.

Witness, for example, how the slow growth of hard euroscepticism within the Conservative party eventually went on to have such dramatic consequences for the nation.

Don’t forget either that members also constitute the on-the-ground sales force for their parties. Because they interact on the doorstep with the public as well as with politicians, what they think, say and do about the UK’s relationship with the European Union really can matter. That’s especially the case as the nation decides what it wants its future relationship with Europe to look like.

Even partisans agree on some things

Over Christmas and the New Year, the Party Members Project, run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, asked the members of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist and Green parties (plus registered supporters of the Brexit Party) a couple of key questions about the UK/EU relationship.

The first touches on what, if you like, is the broad-brush future relationship between the UK and the EU. It shows a high degree of polarisation – and perhaps affective polarisation – between what are effectively two tribes.

Irreconcilable viewpoints? ESRC Party Members ProjectAuthor provided

On one side of the divide, Tory members and Brexit Party registered supporters are both overwhelmingly in favour of a more distant relationship. On the other, you have those who belong to Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens. They are even more overwhelmingly in favour of close alignment between the UK and the EU.

This would suggest that the country isn’t about to heal its Brexit divisions any time soon. But before we descend into total despair, it’s worth turning to the second question we asked. That’s because it’s a reminder that people – even highly partisan people – become less polarised when you ask them about specifics.

That’s even true for immigration – often a subject that plays into the “culture wars” narrative. We asked whether European nationals should be treated differently from people from elsewhere in the world when it comes to post-Brexit immigration.

Finding unity wherever we can. ESRC Party Members ProjectAuthor provided

While the two tribes are still pretty divided, there is far more overlap between parties on this second question than on the first one. Many members from the left-liberal parties are actually in agreement with Conservatives and Brexit Party supporters in wanting everyone to be treated the same. They might be said to come at the question from different viewpoints, but they still find some common ground, at least.

These findings at least give us a hint at how the UK might go about trying to heal divisions. Instead of focusing on Brexit identities and the big picture, it may be that people should move as soon as possible to talking about the myriad specifics that need sorting out. Now the UK has left the EU, the nation can best create a wider consensus on how to move forward by building on the fact that there’s much less that separates people on individual issues than separates them emotionally.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/research-with-party-members-offers-an-important-clue-about-how-to-heal-brexit-divisions-131161 

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‘What does Brexit mean for the UK’s party system?’, New Statesman, 5 February 2020.

The 2019 general election gave the UK’s party political kaleidoscope one heck of a shake. Only time will tell where the pieces will eventually settle – if, indeed, they settle at all. Still, we can make out at least some parts of the emerging pattern.

That task seems easiest when it comes to the colour blue – but perhaps only superficially. Boris Johnson managed to win the kind of overall majority that would have been beyond the Conservative Party’s wildest dreams just six months ago. At the European Parliament elections in June last year it polled less than ten per cent of the vote for the first time in living memory.

Just as importantly, it looks as if the winner of those European elections, the Brexit Party, now poses little threat to the Tories’ hegemony on the right of British politics. But no one should be so foolish as to write off Nigel Farage. If the UK’s political entrepreneur par excellence follows through on his plan to set up his Reform Party, then it could, given what is still widespread populist discontent with Britain’s political class, gain some traction – particularly if Brexit hits the economy hard and, or isn’t seen to change much.

At that point, however, a renewed insurgency on the populist radical right might be the least of the prime minister’s worries, since he may find that at least some of the new Tory intake, rather than constituting a cushion against the Brexiteer ultras who did for both Cameron and May, will join the ERG rather than provide an insurance policy against it.

If, then, the government finds itself facing a cliff-edge this summer, with the ERG demanding ‘a clean break’ and the rest of the parliamentary party understandably panicking about the prospects of ‘No Deal 2.0’, the Conservative Party, far from leading the country into a new golden age, could find itself even more split in 2020 than it was in 2019.

That said, there is at least a reasonable chance that a mixture of gratitude to Johnson and skilfully-employed parliamentary patronage may win the day, freeing up the headspace and time the Conservatives need to address a couple of long-term questions – namely, how do they win back so-called Tory Remainers (namely those voters who have shifted over to the Liberal Democrats) and how, without abandoning the party’s commitment to a smaller, less regulatory and less active state, do they satisfy those voters in the so-called Red Wall seats and make the realignment of 2019 permanent.

As for the other pieces of the party-political kaleidoscope, the yellow part of the pattern also seems reasonably predictable. For the SNP, any disappointment at being unable to stop Brexit was mitigated (some might even say trumped) by the opportunity it now has to insist that the Tory government in London cede Scotland a second independence referendum. Indeed, the more minimalist the deal Johnson ends up negotiating with Brussels, in some ways the better for the Nationalist cause.

Sure, the 47 SNP MPs in the Commons will take an eagle-eyed interest in the details of that deal. But their main focus will be on whipping up support for the party in advance of the 2021 elections to Holyrood, knowing that a big win on a manifesto calling for a referendum will put huge pressure on Westminster and Whitehall to grant what will at that point look to many voters (in all parts of the UK) as their wholly legitimate right to self-determination. Whether the Conservative Party really would stick to its current refusal to contemplate giving the Scots another chance to break it apart, is a moot point.

As for the other nationalist (and, in the case of Northern Ireland, unionist) parties they, too, will be focused as much on their own political institutions as on the consequences of any deal (or lack of one) for their economies. They remain, of course, a part of the pattern formed by the party political kaleidoscope – but not, perhaps, as important a part as when the DUP supposedly (and, as it turned out, only supposedly) had the Conservatives by the proverbial short and curlies in the wake of the 2017 election.

The penultimate – orange or yellow – part of that pattern will also be less important than many might have forecast last year. The Lib Dems returned only 11 MPs – the significantly increased number of second-place finishes they racked up providing precious little consolation for expectations dashed. Quite where they go from here is not clear. A new leader – possibly the newly-pansexual Layla Moran – could help turn things around. But perhaps the best advice would be to go back to their constituencies and prepare for (local) government.

Finally, we turn to the most unpredictable, red, part of the pattern formed by the post-election party political kaleidoscope. The fortunes of the Labour Party would seem to depend hugely on the result of its leadership contest, with the winner to be announced in March.

Should Labour plump for some kind of continuity-Corbyn candidate, then, in the minds of the moderate bulk of the party’s MPs at least, all hope of a swift recovery (indeed any recovery at all) may be lost. Their consequent despair could (again, ‘could’ not ‘will’) perhaps prompt enough of them (namely a sufficient number to allow them to become Her Majesty’s Opposition) to set up a new centre-left party (perhaps absorbing the Lib Dems) to see it succeed where Change UK (remember them?) failed so miserably.

If, on the other hand, Labour ends up picking a more obviously voter-friendly candidate like the current front-runner, Keir Starmer, then its long-term (if not necessarily its short-term) prospects are possibly a little brighter – especially if the party can be made to realise that it has to be more than a trade union-based pressure group for the poor, the public sector, and the ‘woke’.

Even then, much will depend on how Labour’s new leader handles Brexit. The key will presumably be to make it clear to the electorate – as Starmer, to be fair to him, already has – that Labour now accepts that we have left and that the focus now has to be on holding the government to account for whatever comes next.

Precisely what that will be, will gradually become clearer after 31 March. Whatever, it is is unlikely to make for plain sailing for any of the UK’s political parties. The kaleidoscope may end up being shaken once again – and sooner than we think.

Originally published at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/02/what-does-brexit-mean-uks-party-system

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‘We asked Labour members why their party lost. Here’s what they said’, LabourList, 3 February 2020.

Last week saw reports of a couple of internal takes on why Labour lost the general election. In a report circulated to the national executive committee by the party’s election co-ordinators and leaked to the FT’s Jim Pickard, most of the blame was put not on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and Labour’s left-wing manifesto but on its difficulties in dealing with Brexit and an incredibly hostile media. Meanwhile, earlier in the week, the Guardian’s Kate Proctor was given sight of some of the thousands of submissions by ordinary party members to the Labour Together review commission, which included complaints about “gimmicky policies, horrible inefficiency and factional promotions”.

The commission is still taking submissions. It is unlikely to be in a position to fully analyse and publish those survey responses until the spring, at which point it will be fascinating to see how much of gap there is between members’ views on why Labour crashed to its worst defeat since 1935 and what the voters themselves have told survey researchers.

Before then, however, we can get an insight into that question by exploring the responses of party members to a survey conducted by the ESRC-funded Party Members Project (run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University) of 1,353 members a couple of weeks after the election. The survey created bit of a splash at New Year when it suggested that Keir Starmer had a pretty convincing lead over his rivals in the leadership race. But its main purpose this time around – along with surveys of members of other parties – is to look at campaigning.

In the course of the survey, we asked a few questions that give an insight into Labour members’ takes on why the party did so badly. The most revealing is probably the one that asked: “If you had to name one thing that went wrong for the Labour Party during the general election campaign, what would that be?”. Rather than forcing respondents to choose from a pre-prepared list, the question allowed them to write in whatever they thought, albeit obliging them to simplify and prioritise.

Write-in responses, of course, are rather harder to analyse. As the commission will no doubt discover, the exercise takes a heck of a lot longer than you hope it will and inevitably involves a degree of interpretation. Moreover, some responses are just so idiosyncratic that they simply can’t be convincingly coded. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to discern some significant overall patterns, so here goes.

Let’s start with explanations that were offered only by a very small minority of the party’s rank and file, perhaps contrary to some of the media stereotypes of Labour members. Doubtless a number of right-wing commentators will be delighted to hear that some members blame the party’s defeat on the fact that votes are stupid, gullible, ignorant, and even moronic (all terms that were actually used). But responses like that represent only a tiny minority – less than 1%.

The number who blame antisemitic smears runs to less than a handful. The proportion who blame the defeat primarily on the fact that, in one member’s words, “Blairites and centrists tried to destroy us because they are spoilt children who won’t accept democracy” was higher. But, at just 2%, it is nevertheless relatively insignificant.

Interestingly, some 7% of members put the blame for defeat mainly on an overambitious manifesto and message that, broadly speaking, they believed lacked realism, focus, coherence and clarity. This dovetails with the critique already coming from some seasoned election-watchers both inside and outside academia: there is little point offering a bunch of policies that are relatively popular in isolation but that voters don’t trust can be implemented.

Post-election polls also point to Jeremy Corbyn rather than Brexit as being the biggest single barrier to people voting Labour – and it’s clear that some members agree. 18% think he was the party’s biggest problem. Nowhere near the number when you get when you ask voters (43%) – but one in five members thinking that the leader was the most important factor in their party’s defeat is not to be sniffed at.

From there we go to the biggest single reason put forward by Labour members for the party’s stunning defeat. One third of Labour’s rank and file told us that, if there was one thing to blame, it was Brexit. Frustratingly (such is the lot of survey researchers), it isn’t possible to be certain whether this is because they believe Labour should have been more pro-Leave or more pro-Remain. 33% who blame Brexit includes 28% whose stance on it can’t be allocated into one camp or another. Only 1% and 4% respectively clearly believe either that the party lost because it didn’t adopt a stronger pro-Remain position or because it backed a second referendum and failed to support getting out of the EU.

It is worth, noting, however, that a fair few of those who blame Brexit yet aren’t perceptibly pro or anti make the point that it was the party’s indecision and lack of clarity on the issue that was the problem.  Again, this accords with the view of election experts, like my UK in a Changing Europe colleague, Sir John Curtice, who argues that, yes, this was a Brexit election but that it was won by the party that clearly chose a side and lost by the party that failed to do so. The Conservatives managed to bring onside nearly all of those Leave voters who voted either for them or for the Brexit Party at the EP elections in 2019. They also hung on to plenty of Tory Remainers who just couldn’t contemplate a Corbyn government. Labour lost a whole bunch of Leavers but failed to bring together Remain voters, far too many of whom defected to the Lib Dems.

But if Brexit is the most popular explanation for what went wrong among Labour’s grassroots members, the second most popular is equally interesting because, possibly unlike Brexit, it’s an ongoing problem. Almost a quarter of Labour members – 23% – appear to hold what they see as an inherently biased media (both print and broadcast) most responsible for the party’s defeat – or as one put it: “Tory funded MSM lies and misleading articles and campaigns along with daily lies and propaganda on Tory owned main TV channels starting with the BBC!”.

While it may be tempting to dismiss this as paranoid or delusional, research from Loughborough University suggests that under Corbyn, Labour did indeed receive very negative coverage, at least in the press, compared to the Tories. That said, this is something that the party can probably do little about – in opposition anyway and probably even in government, given that the UK is a liberal democracy. The only recourse may be to choose a more voter-friendly leader and policy platform. Only a couple of months to go before we see if that proves possible.

Originally published at https://labourlist.org/2020/02/we-asked-labour-members-why-their-party-lost-heres-what-they-said/ 


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