‘What the Lib Dems can learn from failure’, Liberal Democrat Newswire #88, 5 December 2016

We all fear failure, but we don’t want to think about it too much. It’s less uplifting and less inspiring than success, and worrying about it can stop us even trying to do stuff.

That’s a pity. Because, paradoxically, thinking about failure – trying to understand and even empathise with it – can help us succeed. Unless we work out the don’ts how can we really know what the do’s are?

Here I declare an interest – an interest in failure.  I’ve spent the last decade not just writing about political parties (first the Tories and then Labour) but focusing on their darkest hours and dumbest moves.

The Lib Dems, of course, played a part in both those stories – first by winning by-election victories so stunning they scared their rivals half to death, then by doing a counter-intuitive coalition deal that saved David Cameron’s bacon, sealed Labour’s fate but turned out to be electorally suicidal.

Now, after winning just eight seats and eight per cent of the vote in 2015, what can Lib Dems learn from the mistakes made by both Labour and the Tories in the wake of their shattering defeats in 1997 and 2010?

Here – in reverse order – are my top five tips.

5. Don’t jump on every passing bandwagon simply to get some airtime: you’ll find it hard to jump off again and, anyway, voters can smell opportunism a mile off.

4. By-election and local election success helps build momentum but don’t let it fool you into assuming you’re on the way to repeating it at national level.

3. After you’ve inevitably rushed into a leadership contest, be prepared to ditch the winner if they’re clearly getting nowhere.

2. Don’t bargain on being able to fight elections on the issues that favour you: make sure you’ve also got something sensible – and centrist – to say on those issues that traditionally play well for your opponents.

1. Never presume a big defeat is simply a swing of the pendulum: spend as much time and money as you can – and soon – on research in order to properly understand what went wrong, then do everything you can to show you’ve got the message and signal that you’re changing.

Some of this should be obvious. But parties aren’t textbook ‘rational actors’; they know what they like and like what they know. Thinking about failure provides an antidote to complacency. And complacency, in politics anyway, can be the biggest killer.

 

Originally published at https://www.libdemnewswire.com/

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‘Explaining the pro-Corbyn surge in Labour’s membership’ (with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb), LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, 16 November 2016

As part of our ESRC-funded Party Members Project (PMP), we fielded a first survey with existing Labour members in May 2015 and a second one with post-election members in May 2016.  We now know that at the most recent leadership election those who were members before May 2015 voted predominantly for Owen Smith, whereas the new members opted mainly for Jeremy Corbyn. This prompts a key question: in what respects did the ‘new’ members differ from the ‘old’ members?

In order to find out, we compare these two groups: older members (pre-GE2015) and newer members (who joined after May 2015 but before January 2016 and were therefore eligible to vote in the leadership election).  A number of features stand out: gender; left-wing identity; social liberalism; campaign activism; feelings about the leadership; and the possibility that the ranks of the newer members, and those that support Jeremy Corbyn, may have been swollen by what we call ‘educated left-behinds’ – people who, given their qualifications, might have been expecting to earn more than they currently do.

Slightly less well off – and a lot more women

First up, we find that new members are not significantly younger or more working class – but they are more likely to be slightly less well-off and female.  The average age of both old and new members is 51 and more than half of them are graduates (56% and 58% respectively). Whereas three quarters of them live in households in which the chief income earner (CIE) has a ‘middle class’ (ABC1) occupation (76% vs. 75%), a third (34%) of old members’ household gross income falls below the national average of around £35,000 –something that’s the case for 41% of new members. Moreover, women make up a greater proportion of the new members than of the older members (52% to 38%). Corbyn, then, does not seem to have attracted a very different type of crowd in many socio-demographic respects, except insofar as it is slightly less well-off and more gender-balanced.

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No necessarily more left wing – although some of them think they are

New members are certainly not very different from the old members when it comes to their views on the state vs the market. The overwhelming majority of members are pretty left wing, whether they joined prior to the 2015 GE or after: they are pro-redistribution (91% vs 94%), believe that ordinary people do not get a fair share (94% vs. 96%), think that the management tries to get the better of employees (92% vs. 96%) and think that spending cuts have gone too far (92% vs. 99%).

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They do, however, self-position differently on a left (0) – right (10) scale, with new members seeing themselves as significantly more left-wing (1.95) than older members (2.39). And if we isolate only Momentum members (10%), this difference is even more accentuated, given that they self-locate a full point further to the left than older members (1.39). Thus, in terms of subjective self-image, which probably embraces more than just state-market opinions, the new members see themselves as something of a leftist vanguard.

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They are decidedly more socially liberal

New members are, in fact, decidedly more socially liberal than older ones on a few central issues: they are considerably less keen than old members on introducing censorship of films and magazines (16% vs. 21%), stiffer sentences (16% vs 27%) or teaching children to obey authority (23% vs 40%).

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The two groups seem, however, to have similar positions on considering immigration a good thing for the economy (5.7 vs. 5.8 on a scale running from bad (1) to good (7)) and for the UK’s cultural life (5.6 vs. 5.8).

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More likely to restrict their activism to online clicktivism

Old and new members tend to participate similarly in online political activity: (Facebook 51% vs. 53%; Twitter 37% vs 33%). When it comes to offline participation, however, there is a striking difference: new members are plainly not as keen to get stuck in. While a third (31%) of the old members attended a public meeting during the GE campaign, less than a sixth of new members did so during the campaign for the 2016 local/regional/mayoral elections (15%). Although less was presumably at stake in 2016 than 2015, an even wider gap is registered when looking at activities such as leafletting (42.5% vs. 16%), displaying election posters (51% vs 26%) or – most notably of all – canvassing voters (35.7% vs 9.3%). The preference for clicktivism over other forms of activity, however, is much less pronounced for those who are Momentum members. Although these people do tend to participate more in online activities than everybody else (Facebook 67%; Twitter 50%), the gap with older members’ participation in offline activities is much smaller (displaying election posters 38%, leafletting 35%, canvassing voters 29%); indeed, Momentum members were actually more likely than old members to have attended public meetings  (35%).

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Feel more respected by the leadership

Whereas the new members are more likely to believe in general terms that politicians don’t care what people like them think (42% vs. 31%), they are much happier with what they’re getting from the Labour leadership than members in 2015. Not only did three quarters of them join the party because of belief in the party leadership (76.5%), as opposed to only 42.5% of old members – the difference between Corbyn and Miliband (and his predecessors).  They are also much more inclined to believe than those we surveyed back in 2015 that the Labour leadership respects ordinary members (40.3% vs. 16%).

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They are more likely to be ‘educated left behinds’

Relative deprivation theory suggests that people tend to make comparisons between what they expect out of life and what they actually experience, looking at people who are rather similar to themselves for cues as to what to expect. Thus, university graduates tend to derive their expectations from looking at other graduates and risk frustration if these expectations are not met. Did a sense of relative deprivation trigger some graduates to join Labour in the hope that the Corbyn leadership would help render their actual economic conditions closer to their professional expectations? Possibly so. The proportion of graduates among Labour members earning less than the average salary (around £25,000) is 10 points higher among new members than among older ones (51% vs. 41%). And a considerable gap also exists between pro- (54%) and anti- (41%) Corbyn new members.

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In short, the Corbyn leadership has attracted similar people in terms of age, education and occupational class to those who were Labour members in 2015, although new members are slightly less well-off and more gender balanced than the past. New members are similarly left-wing on the state-market dimension, although they are more likely to regard themselves as further left and are certainly somewhat more socially liberal than older members. Although they tend to participate mainly online and not so much offline, this is less true for those who are also members of Momentum. Clearly, the new members are confident that the new leadership respects them and this is something that distinguishes Corbyn from most other politicians in their eyes. Finally, there is some evidence that the educated left-behinds might have been particularly moved to place new hope in Corbyn. How long they keep the faith, and what that means for the Labour Party, remains to be seen.

Originally published at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/explaining-the-pro-corbyn-surge-in-labours-membership/

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‘The Conservative Party and Business have fallen in and out of love for decades’, The Conversation, 11 October 2016.

Given the potential impact of a so-called “hard Brexit” on bottom lines, as well as the less-than-friendly tone of recent ministerial and prime ministerial interventions, it’s hardly surprising that relations between the British government and business have been pretty strained lately.

But underlying some of the coverage of their spat is the assumption that capital and the Conservative Party shouldn’t ever fall out with each other. Since the latter is so obviously the political wing of the former, the argument runs, any disagreement between them must spell something pretty serious.

Well, maybe – but only up to a point. Although business funds and favours the Tories, the relationship between them is not, nor has it ever been, one of master and servant. If wealth creators and Conservative politicians are squabbling right now, it’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last.

Pressure points

Liam Fox, one of the government’s three Brexiteers, recently got into trouble for suggesting British businessmen were too fond of knocking off early on a Friday and heading for the golf course. But he’s by no means the first Tory trade spokesman to take such a jaded view of the very people whose vested interests the Conservative Party is supposedly pre-programmed to promote. Nor, indeed, is he the first to discover that the feeling is sometimes mutual.

John Nott, perhaps best remembered as Margaret Thatcher’s defence secretary during the Falklands, was previously her shadow trade spokesman. This was a role which, he recalls in his memoirs, required him “to get around the country persuading businessmen that the Tory party had their interests at heart”. That effort, he noted, often turned out to be a dialogue of the deaf:

Every gathering followed a predictable pattern: the shadow minister made his speech and then a vulgar, tanked-up businessman launched an attack on politicians generally, the Tory Party and its leader … It is extraordinary that businessmen, who often crave some input into government, so often exclude themselves from the whole process by their ignorance of the necessary compromises and realities of political life.

Thatcher herself was well aware of the problem, although, given her forceful style, hardly best-placed to do much about it. The president of the CBI, responding to a private letter she’d written him just after taking over from Ted Heath – who, as the man who abolished retail price maintenance and the coiner of the phrase “the unacceptable face of capitalism” enjoyed more than a few run-ins with business over the years – confessed that “contacts between the Conservative Party and industry are not as close as they would wish”.

But Thatcher’s efforts to remedy the situation seem to have backfired, at least judging from a letter written by one of her shadow ministers to another: the “big industrialists” he met were fed up of being lectured by Mrs T, he confided. Indeed, “one had said: I would not mind being treated as a schoolboy if only she would put me in the 6th form. But I do mind being put in the 4th”.

The atmosphere clearly improved after Thatcher entered Number Ten. But that doesn’t mean we should swallow the idea that her governments were simply about translating business’s wishlists into policy. Many of the flagship policies (privatisation, trade union reform, the slashing of subsidies, pension changes) we now associate with those governments, rather than being urged upon the politicians by the business community, provoked either little initial interest or else a degree of nervousness and even pushback.

Friends or acquaintances?

The fact that the relationship between the Conservative party and business isn’t quite as symbiotic as is sometimes assumed might owe something to the fact that business people have never dominated the ranks of the parliamentary party. Even if they’ve been active in local associations, they don’t often turn their hand to politics – and the results are mixed when they do. One would probably have to go back to Ernest Marples to find a businessman who really made a direct difference to government policy. Even that didn’t exactly end well.

True, businessmen have done rather better and rather more for the party as fundraisers. The late Alistair McAlpine, who raised millions for Maggie in the 70s and 80s, is probably the stand out example.

But, as is the case for Labour and the unions, despite what the Conservatives’ opponents routinely allege, it’s never been – and never will be – simply a case of he who pays the piper calls the tune. Politics, like life, is just more complicated than that. This is partly because it’s more than a superstructural reflection of an economic base and partly because business is not some monolith composed of firms with one identical, unchanging interest.

Ironically, Brexit illustrates pretty much all of the above. Yes, business lobbied both Tory and Labour governments to join Europe and, overwhelmingly, backed staying in ahead of the 1975 referendum. By 2016, however, a Conservative PM had decided to risk a second referendum even though the majority of firms still probably preferred the certainty of remaining.

The campaign itself, however, suggested there was significantly more business support for leaving than there had been 40 years previously. And now the decision has been made (and sterling has reacted accordingly), some firms seem relatively relaxed about it, while others are beginning to panic.

None of this of course means that the Conservatives no longer listen to business. Nor does it mean they no longer worry about being business-friendly. They do: look at their u-turn on naming and shaming firms employing foreigners.

But the Conservatives never have and never will simply do business’s bidding. They produce and implement policies so as to promote what they themselves conceive to be the best interests of business. And they will continue to do that even if it means occasionally provoking disquiet or even squeals of protest from a section of society that ultimately will continue to back them unless and until it has somewhere else to go. And given the current state of Her Majesty’s Opposition, that seems unlikely any time soon.

 

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/the-conservative-party-and-business-have-fallen-in-and-out-of-love-for-decades-66857

 

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‘Would a 2017 General Election mean a landslide victory for the Conservative Party? Yes’ CityAM, 20 September 2016

Unless everything we think we know about politics turns out to be wrong, the Tories are going to win the next election. They are way ahead of Labour on both economic competence and best Prime Minister. Just how big that win will be partly depends on when they go to the country. If Theresa May does what any normal politician would do in her position, she will engineer a contest in the spring or early summer of next year – before the compromises she’s going to have to make with Brussels become overly obvious, before the economy begins palpably to slow down, before the continuing squeeze on the NHS makes waiting lists and times even longer – and before Labour can dump Jeremy Corbyn. And even if she waits until 2020, she’ll still win. But if she goes sooner, she stands a chance of achieving the sort of majority that the Conservatives have only been able to dream about for 30 years. Carpe diem!

 

Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/249762/would-2017-general-election-mean-landslide-victory

 

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‘David Cameron: The moderniser whose bravery stopped fatally short’, New Statesman, 13 September 2016

Few if any British Prime Ministers have been able to rescue their reputations by publishing their memoirs. David Cameron had better hope he proves one of the exceptions to the rule because, right now, he’s in danger of being written off – and maybe even written out of history. Not just gone, but forgotten.

Certainly Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, seems bent on proving that almost everything he ever did as Tory leader, whether in opposition or in government, might as well have been written in sand. The man who made it his mission when he took over in 2005 to drag the Conservatives (kicking and screaming if that’s what it took) into the 21st century has been replaced by someone seemingly intent on taking the country back to the 1950s – a time before mass immigration, entry into Europe, the decline of the Commonwealth, the abandonment of industrial policy, and the abolition of the eleven-plus ruined everything.

Perhaps it was the reintroduction of grammar schools, rather than the lure of the international lecture circuit or his family’s understandable desire to escape the media spotlight and public scrutiny, that saw him go back on his declared intention to stay on in the Commons. It’s one thing, after all, to follow John Major in refusing to conduct a running commentary on one’s successor, but quite another to remain completely silent as that successor does all she can, albeit with icy politeness, to trash your legacy in her desire to differentiate herself, keep the economy ticking over in the face of an inevitable downturn, tickle her party’s tummy, and maybe mop up what’s left of UKIP following Farage’s departure.

Perhaps it’s no more than Cameron deserves. After all, his willingness to take on the so-called Tory Taliban was always far more limited than he pretended. True, he got gay marriage onto the statute book – although one could argue that it was an idea whose time had come and was realised in spite of rather than because of a majority of Conservative MPs.

But Cameron’s bravery certainly never extended to taking on those MPs and their grassroots supporters on immigration and Europe. Indeed, had he confronted rather than continually appeased them by promising what he could never realistically hope to deliver, he might never have been forced into calling the referendum that led to Brexit – apart, maybe, from the gongs he gave his gang in his resignation honours list, the one thing that he’ll always be remembered for, not just by those of us obliged to live through it but also the proverbial “historians of the future”.

Yet maybe this is unfair. Cameron, after all, can claim with some justification to be one of the electorally successful Tory leaders of all time. He took on a party that had lost – and lost badly – three contests on the trot and was seriously wondering whether it stood much chance of avoiding yet another defeat next time around. The swing Cameron achieved during his four and half-years as leader of the opposition – admittedly with the help of Gordon Brown and the Great Recession – was huge. And while it proved insufficient to give him a majority, it allowed Cameron to demonstrate the lightness of touch and quick-thinking creativity required to coax the Liberal Democrats into a coalition that, played right (and, boy, did he play it right) was always going to destroy them. At the same, he provided the Tories (still Thatcherite after all those years) with the “national interest” cover they required to make unprecedented (and many at the time thought impossible) cuts to the apparently “bloated” state that New Labour had supposedly cemented permanently into place.

Even more incredible – although admittedly Cameron was lucky to be facing a far less fluent, fleet-footed performer across the dispatch box – he and George Osborne managed to push through five years’ worth of (probably unnecessarily harsh) austerity measures and yet, notwithstanding all the much-trumpeted targets missed on the economy and immigration and the absolute mess they helped make of Libya, bag their parliamentary colleagues an overall majority at the next general election. Even better, by holding and winning the first of his three referendums at the height of Nick Clegg’s unpopularity, Cameron killed off the prospect of electoral reform for at least another generation.

 
All that might not count much to a man who, claiming to be motivated above all by the spirit of public service, aspired to be a statesman. Cameron always looked and sounded the part – especially, it must be said, when dealing with Northern Ireland. Yet it constitutes no mean achievement for what, at heart, he always was – a politician. As such, when defeated, he knew he had to resign the job he loved doing. And who can blame him when, faced with life on the backbenches supporting a woman determined to portray herself as a very different kind of Conservative, he simply couldn’t bear to stick around.

 

Originally published at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/09/how-much-more-trouble-will-three-brexiteers-cause-theresa-may

 

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‘Why don’t people vote? You asked Google – here’s the answer’, Guardian 27 July 2016.

For those of us who troop down to the polling station at every election, it can be pretty frustrating that not everybody does the same – especially when we end up with a result we don’t like, and which we reckon might have turned out differently if only they had. It’s not as if it takes much effort and, after all, didn’t people die to win us the right to hold whoever’s in power to account?

Maybe so, but the question is probably best approached – at least initially – by turning round the telescope. Instead of asking why people don’t vote, we might reasonably ask why anyone bothers in the first place. Given that the likelihood of any election being decided by a single vote is so small, especially in contests where the eligible electorate runs into the thousands, it makes little or no sense for any of us to devote our precious time to deciding who to vote for and then casting a ballot in their favour.

This so-called “paradox of voting” has intrigued political scientists – especially those who like to see themselves as belonging to the “rational choice” school – for ages. The answer most commonly arrived at is that those who do turn out must derive some utility, however indirect, from the act of voting.

Perhaps they like to see themselves as good citizens – part, or even pillars, of a community – and therefore feel a warm glow of satisfaction after performing their civic duty. Or perhaps they are ideologues or into identity politics – in which case, the warm glow comes from expressing solidarity with those who share the same ideals or characteristics. Or maybe they just worry that if they don’t go and vote, then who else will?

According to this logic, then, people who don’t vote are those for whom the concepts of community and civic duty don’t mean much. Nor does ideology or some sort of politicised identity – unless of course they cleave to an ideology or an identity that sets itself up in such conscious opposition to the mainstream that voting would be associated with conforming to lame or oppressive conventions. Or maybe – and not unreasonably, given that many people still do go out and vote – they’re not overly worried that their failure to do so will have negative consequences for anybody, not least for themselves.

It doesn’t require much imagination then, to realise that some demographics are less likely to vote than others, and the empirical evidence provides plentiful support for that. Those who don’t turn out often have (or at least feel they have) less of a stake in society, and are people for whom informing themselves about candidates and issues would involve taking an interest in stuff to which they wouldn’t normally pay much attention. We are talking, in other words, about the poor, the poorly educated, the young, the transient, the newly arrived, and the less politically knowledgeable and interested. Worryingly, the gap between such people and the rest has been rising over time as bodies such as trade unions, which used to help close it by encouraging these groups to vote, have declined.

But it’s not all about demography or social and educational status. Indeed, one of the standout findings from comparative research is that, for a mysterious mixture of historical, cultural and institutional reasons, low turnout seems to have become the norm in some countries (the post-communist states of central and eastern Europe, for example), whereas other countries (such as the Nordic states) consistently record high turnout.

People’s willingness to turn out is also contingent on political circumstances. In certain situations even those who might normally vote feel less inclined to do so. If the result of an election looks like a foregone conclusion, then that produces a lower turnout. This also tends to happen if one election is held relatively soon after another. Turnout is similarly depressed if people feel that the differences between the choices on offer are small or that the connection between who makes it into office and the policies they pursue is vague.

The way in which elections are conducted can also make a difference. Perhaps not surprisingly, giving people the chance to vote by post boosts turnout, albeit marginally. Holding elections at weekends and making it easy to register to vote, however late, makes a positive difference too. And proportional representation, while it’s far from being the silver bullet that some of its more starry-eyed advocates claim, may well encourage more people to vote – especially when parties make it clear who their likely coalition partners will be, either during the campaign or before it. That has to be balanced against the fact, however, that the complexity and divided governments that PR sometimes produces may actually discourage less educated and politically interested people from voting.

For those hoping to see developments in digital life transform politics, there is some evidence to suggest that VAAs (Voter Advice Applications, which can be used on a computer, tablet or a phone to tell you which party most closely matches your preferences) may increase turnout among young people, although there is also evidence to suggest that those who consult them and don’t find much of a match are actually put off participating. Voting over the web, which is only really done on any large scale in Estonia, could make a difference in the long-term; but the evidence as yet is far from conclusive.

The most robust finding from research on voting and non-voting, however, is something of a no-brainer: compulsory voting ensures higher turnout. Conventional wisdom says we should ignore this: the right not to vote, it is argued, is as important as the right to do so, and there are fears (largely unfounded, according to research from places like Australia where it is the norm) that obliging people to turn out will lead to frivolous or protest voting.

On the other hand, if non-voting is on the increase, then there could come a point where so few people cast a ballot that the essential legitimacy of the polity is called into question. Moreover, we already know that politicians, needing to win elections, tend to cater to – and even pander to – those who do vote and ignore those who do not. If compulsory voting is what it takes to ensure, to quote Abe Lincoln, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”, then maybe we need to consider it as an option.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/27/why-dont-people-vote-google

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‘As a surge of supporters sign up to vote in the leadership contest, can Owen Smith save Labour? It depends’, City AM, 20 July 2016.

While it’s tempting to ask whether anyone at all can save Labour, this is a question that deserves a serious answer. After all, Owen Smith may be the only man standing between the Labour Party and imminent implosion. The answer, then, depends not only on whether the challenger can beat the incumbent but also on what we mean by “save”. I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of Smith beating Jeremy Corbyn. However, he has a mountain to climb – one made up of hundreds of thousands of members who, for whatever reason, still seem to have faith in their leader. By positioning himself as a left-winger but questioning Corbyn’s competence, and at the same time capitalising on frustration with the latter’s underwhelming performance in the EU referendum, he’s fighting a canny campaign. But even if Smith somehow pulls it off, he won’t save Labour at the next election. Preventing the party splitting may be the best that he can hope for.

Originally Published at http://www.cityam.com/245862/surge-supporters-sign-up-vote-leadership-contest-can-owen

 

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