‘Should Philip Hammond Remain Chancellor of the Exchequer: No’, CityAM, 23 November 2017

“And with one bound he was free!”

Or perhaps not. Even if this year’s Budget doesn’t end up unravelling as swiftly as some of its recent predecessors – and even if actually ends up, unlike them, doing something measurably positive in the long term – it’s probably not going to save the chancellor’s bacon.

And nor should it. Philip Hammond is a realist rather than a fantasist, a pragmatist rather than a zealot, a Remainer rather than a Leaver – in other words, everything that many of his cabinet colleagues are not. As such, he has no place in a government obsessed with quitting the EU whatever the economic cost.

Yes, by staying in post, the chancellor can claim to be limiting the damage that might be done by a true-believer. But, in so doing, he’s allowing Johnson, Gove et al. to carry on having their cake and eating it.

It’s about time one of them actually assumed responsibility for Britain’s brittle Brexit economy. I for one can’t wait to see what happens.

Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/276289/debate-should-philip-hammond-remain-chancellor-exchequer

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‘On Brexit, Labour is about to take a big gulp from a poisoned chalice’, New Statesman, 27 November 2017

What we always seem to talk about when we talk about Brexit is the Tories. Given that they’re in government, and given the mess they seem to be making of the whole thing, that’s wholly understandable.  But it’s also dangerous, not least because it’s letting Labour off the hook, blinding the party to the fact that it may be about to take a very big drink from a very big poisoned chalice.

Jeremy Corbyn and co should be breathing a big sigh of relief that, as the EU Withdrawal Bill grinds its way through parliament, media coverage is more likely than ever to focus on a handful of Conservative ‘mutineers’ rather than on Her Majesty’s Opposition. This, plus the fact that all eyes will soon be on the next European Council meeting in Brussels, means voters won’t be anything like as aware as they should be that Labour remains as badly split as ever – and not just on how and when this country should leave the European Union, but whether it should leave at all.

Yet any relief among the Labour leadership that it’s May rather than Corbyn who’s currently feeling the heat most could turn out to be very short-lived indeed, especially if the party is unlucky enough to win the next general election – whether that election takes place before or after Brexit in March 2019.

Taking over in the wake of a contest triggered by the sudden collapse of Theresa May’s minority government is surely Labour’s nightmare scenario.

For one thing, Prime Minister Corbyn would probably only have made it into No 10 with the parliamentary support of the SNP, a party that has made no secret of the fact that it regards Brexit as a calamity and will do anything within its power to halt it.

For another, there are an awful lot of Labour MPs who feel exactly the same way.  Sure, many of them, especially those representing Leave constituencies, remain nervous about defying the ‘will of the people’.  But even if that means they’re prepared to see the UK leave the EU, they would still prefer a much softer Brexit – up to and including staying in the single market and the customs union – than is currently on offer from Mrs May.

Given all this, would a Labour (or Labour-led) government really refuse to stop the clock, pause the process and think again?  I don’t think so.

Let’s imagine, though, that it never gets the chance: that Corbyn instead takes office after rather than before we leave the EU.  And let’s imagine, too, that the deal negotiated by his Tory predecessor turns out to be a complete turkey.

Having presumably felt obliged to support said deal in a parliamentary vote, lest it be accused of ignoring the referendum result, Labour would hardly be able to disclaim any responsibility for the resulting administrative chaos/economic meltdown/diplomatic humiliation (delete as appropriate).  Moreover, the chances of it ushering in a popular and truly transformative programme with all that going on would be slim to non-existent.

How long a Labour government would last in those circumstances, and how long it would then spend in opposition once disappointed and even angry voters had removed it from power is anyone’s guess.

So, too, is whether a party already riven by divisions between its centrist and socialist wings could even survive such an outcome, at least in its present form.

Every opposition should be desperate to defeat the existing government and take its place at the drop of a hat, right?  Wrong.  ‘Careful what you wish for; you might just get it’ may be something of a cliché.  But for Labour, it’s one it might want to think about – and hard.

Originally published at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2017/11/brexit-labour-about-take-big-gulp-poisoned-chalice

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‘My secret plan to turn students against Brexit’, Politico, 26 October 2017.

My name is Tim Bale and I’m an academic. I’ve been abusing Brexit for nearly a year and a half now, and I just can’t seem to stop. Not a day goes by without me thinking about it, even if I’m not actually doing it. It’s affecting my work life, my home life, and pretty much all my relationships.

The only thing it’s not affecting, it turns out, is my students. Try as I might to bend the minds of my supposedly vulnerable young charges to my Europhile will, the little blighters simply will insist on thinking for themselves. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know why I bother; I really don’t.

Just last week, I took a straw poll of my two second-year British Politics groups at Queen Mary University of London, the majority of whom belong to the 18-24 age group that was most likely to have voted Remain back in June 2016. I offered them a choice: Stay in the EU on current terms or crash out in 2019 with no deal.

Heaven or hell, right? So why, then, did a shocking 30-odd percent of them choose the latter — an option which, in my clearly considered view, any fool (and even, I’ve heard tell, some Cabinet ministers) knows would be a complete and utter catastrophe?

There are surely only two explanations. Either I am a total failure as a propagandist and a pedagogue (possible, but can I really be that bad?) Or else a pesky professional preoccupation with balance and objectivity continues to thwart my best and most malign intentions.

There’s also, I suppose, the fact that I am teaching highly intelligent, politically engaged adults (did I mention, by the way, that they were adults?), all of them possessing fully functioning bullshit-detectors and all of them continually reading, watching, listening to and talking about all sorts of stuff that stands in shocking contradistinction to my own toxic (yet I like to think still tempting) brew of paternalistic centrism, naïve internationalism and desperately unpatriotic defeatism.

Of course, maybe I’m trying to throw even the most perspicacious pro-Brexit columnists off the scent by focusing on the time I spend prancing around the lecture theater and sitting in the seminar room banging on about British politics. Maybe I’m at my most nefarious and insidious in my textbook, European Politics: a Comparative Introduction.

Or maybe not. True, the fourth edition was published this year, over six months after the U.K. voted to leave the EU. But the wheels of academia grind awful slow — so slow that I barely had time to insert more than a few lines (five index entries, I just checked) about Brexit and its impact at complex copy-edit and proof stages.

Agreed, the journal articles that probably make up the bulk of the reading we set for students are much briefer and can theoretically respond more rapidly to contemporary events. But these go through an even more painstaking peer-review process, which means that anything substantive (as opposed to speculative) on Brexit — apart perhaps from work that explores the intricacies of the referendum result — may well only appear in these texts after — rather than before — we leave the European Union.

These frustrating but inevitable leads and lags apply just as much to stuff published by scholars who spend their whole life studying not U.K. or comparative European politics but the EU itself. It seems that, far from being in the vanguard of our wicked collective endeavor to brainwash Britain’s students against Brexit, academic colleagues who specialize in the EU are unlikely to be of much help in that respect.

For one thing, like the EU member countries and Brussels bureaucrats they write about, Brexit (how can I put this so as not to offend Euroskeptics?) may not be the most important thing on their agenda right now.

For another, they tend — at least in my experience — to be pretty critical of the EU: after all, they of all people know how it operates. If students come out of these courses more committed to the ideal of European integration than when they went in — and frankly I’ve no idea if this is the case or not (has anyone ever tried to find out? Maybe they should) — then it’s because they’ve decided that, on balance, the upsides they’ve learned about outweigh the (often considerable) downsides.

Any idea, incidentally, that the U.K. will need fewer staff and students specifically interested in the EU is — if you’ll forgive me slipping into abstruse academic jargon for a moment — utterly bonkers. In fact, we’ll probably need even more of them.

Whatever you think of the whole enterprise, the EU is a trading and political powerhouse that, once we’re denied the more or less easy familiarity that comes with membership, we are going to have to work even harder to understand.

Ultimately, and rather ironically, though, I’m seeking to counter a dubious charge that it’s through our teaching and research that we, as academics, are hardening our students’ hearts and minds against Brexit.

If it’s substantiation for that charge that Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris was hoping to get when he sent out a letter asking universities to share a list of professors teaching Brexit-related material, then I say: Good, at least we’ll have some evidence.

Because at the moment, the best Brexiteers can come up with is a list of clearly earnest, though hardly subtle, and arguably self-interested interventions by scholars who have either gone over to the dark side (university management — run for the hills!) or else are indulging in perfectly legit extracurricular political activity.

None of these, I’m sad to inform the world, are likely even to be noticed by the average (or even above- or below-average) student, let alone persuade them to set fire to the Union Flag while draping themselves instead in the glorious blue and gold stars of Brussels.

Originally published at https://www.politico.eu/article/secret-brexit-plan-to-turn-students-against-leaving-eu/

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‘Ten lessons for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil from Tory election disaster’, Irish Times, 20 October 2017.

The dust might not have settled but the data is in. Thanks to research conducted by various pollsters, we have a pretty good idea of what happened and why in last June’s UK general election. And there are some relevant and thought-provoking take-homes for both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

First the good news. The combined share for the Conservatives and Labour was just over 80 per cent. So, as polls suggest might be the case in Ireland, too, perhaps the conventional wisdom that the two biggest parties are somehow bound to bleed votes to smaller, more radical alternatives no longer holds.

A note of caution for both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. If voters don’t see the need for an election, they do not take kindly to whichever party is seen to have opportunistically triggered it for its own advantage – whether it’s an opposition suddenly pulling the plug on government or, as was the case with the Conservatives, a government transparently trying to capitalise on an opinion poll lead over the opposition.

3 Widespread scepticism about whether campaigns make much of a difference may need to be revised. Labour started way behind the Tories yet came close to finishing level on vote – if not on seat share. Surveys show voters are less and less tribal and more and more consumerist. Surveys also show that more and more of them are making up their minds later and later, so losing momentum can be very costly.

4 A word of warning to Fine Gael. Don’t, as the Tories did, try to make the campaign all about who’s in charge. You might, like they did, find that your leader doesn’t do as well against that opponent as you’re expecting, especially if he’s an experienced electioneer. And research on this year’s UK general election confirms what we already know, namely that voters aren’t stupid and they’re suspicious: are you focusing on your leader because that’s all you’ve got to offer or, worse, because you’ve got something to hide?

5 Voters may be be tiring of negative campaigning. They’re feeling pretty negative themselves, with a majority in the UK, for instance, worried that kids today aren’t going to enjoy a life as good as their parents’. Obviously, they don’t all want pie-in-the-sky promises from the opposition, and Labour’s platform was regarded by too many people as too good to be true. But at least it was positive and hopeful, in marked contrast to the “misery manifesto” and personalised attacks put out by the Conservatives.

6 Despite its best efforts, the government doesn’t get to decide what the election is going to be about. The Tories assumed they could make it all about competence and Brexit. But the voters wanted it to be about the bread and butter issues that mattered most to them and their families rather than some abstract idea of what was best for the country. That suited Labour, as it was seen to be keen to talk about precisely those issues and to have the best policies on them. If the Irish are anything like the British, then, Fianna Fáil is right to shout as loudly as it can about the need to move beyond austerity, the shortage of affordable housing, and (most importantly, surveys show) the crisis in healthcare.

7 What you’re willing to talk about speaks volumes about your brand, and brands still count. One reason the UK general election didn’t turn into a total disaster for Theresa May was partly because the Conservatives were slightly ahead of Labour on “Competent and capable” and way ahead on “Willing to take tough decisions for the long term”. But that was it. Labour had huge leads on “Wants to help ordinary people get on in life” and “Fairness” and “Opportunity for all”. Judging from their ardfheis slogans and soundbites, Fianna Fáil seem to have taken note.

8 That ardfheis was also a reminder of a lesson that emerges from research on this year’s general election in the UK, namely that enthusiastic foot soldiers matter. Work for the Party Members’ Project I run makes it clear that not only did Labour’s grassroots outnumber their Conservative counterparts by a factor of five to one, most of them did more campaigning, too.

9 Crucially, Labour’s members also did a lot more for their party on social media. Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter) really are crucial campaign spaces nowadays. Clearly, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil need to make sure they aren’t (like the Tories were) behind the curve here. But they also need to appreciate that the most effective memes and clips – and research suggests that positive and genuinely witty stuff works far better than negative, fact-based material – weren’t produced by Labour HQ but organically by the party’s younger supporters on the ground.

10 The final lesson follows from this, but it’s a tricky one. We know from all the research that age was a major factor in June, largely because younger voters have a more liberal, more progressive outlook on a whole range of issues. We also know that the referendum that took place the year before helped (re)structure people’s political preferences.

Fine Gael and, perhaps particularly, Fianna Fáil, which needs to do better in bigger places, need to take note. Although by no means all young Irish people want to see the end of the Eighth Amendment, and although there is a huge issue of conscience at stake, neither party wants to get trapped on the wrong side of what in Ireland, too, may be becoming an increasingly crucial demographic divide. There will always be a place for a party that represents small-town, small-c conservative Ireland. But that place may not be the future.

Originally published at https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/ten-lessons-for-fine-gael-fianna-f%C3%A1il-from-tory-election-disaster-1.3262168

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‘Tim Bale: Inside Labour’s massive membership base’, LabourList, 6 October 2017,

People who join political parties are abnormal.  Even if we take into account the phenomenal growth of Labour’s grassroots support since 2015, fewer than five per cent of British adults are party members.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that people who join political parties are weird. Despite a stereotype that sees them as either ideological zealots or crazed careerists, most of them are simply folk who are interested in politics and enjoy mixing with people who, like them, believe in their chosen party’s values and would much rather see them govern than the other lot.

True, there are big differences in how the members of different parties view the same issue – whether we’re talking about austerity, immigration, law and order, or Brexit.  But we need to be careful that those political differences don’t blind us to the fact that, demographically-speaking, the members of different parties may have more in common than they might care to admit.

The ESRC-funded Party Members Project that I work on with Paul Webb, from Sussex University, and Monica Poletti who, like me, is based at Queen Mary University of London, has enabled us, with the help of YouGov, to survey samples of party members immediately after both the 2015 and 2017 general elections. As a result we hope we have a pretty good idea of what Labour members, in the aggregate, look like and how they compare to members of other parties.

Our research suggests that, like it or not, Labour’s membership is not much less middle-class and less white than the memberships of its two main rivals.  Three-quarters of Labour members fall into the ABC1 category, and while this is by no means an ideal measure of class – objective or subjective – it doesn’t throw up a huge difference with the Tories and the Lib Dems, nearly nine out of ten of whose members fall into the same category. As for ethnicity, white British members make up over 95 per cent of the total in each and every one of the three parties.

That said, Labour does stand out from its counterparts when it comes to gender. Partly because of those who have joined it since 2015, the party has far more female members as a proportion of its total membership than do the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Indeed, Labour is getting close, probably for the first time in its history, to gender parity among its members.

When it comes to where Labour members live, there is an interesting – but, given the importance, of London, by no means total – mismatch between the party’s electoral heartlands, which are in the north, and where nearly half of its grassroots supporters are located, in London and the south.

And finally, age – the thing that seems to excite so much interest, not least because it was such a big deal when it came to voting in this year’s general election. In June, the Conservatives did badly among “young” voters, those aged between 18 and 44, and where Labour performed poorly among more “middle-aged” and “older” voters.

Labour’s membership, however, doesn’t exactly mirror that split. Although the post-2015 narrative has been all about a flood of younger people into the party, the reality appears to be a little different. Sure, some young people have joined, but so too have many middle-aged people, many of them folk who left the party in the Blair era but who have now re-joined under Jeremy Corbyn.

But while the Labour membership’s age profile (28 per cent 18-44, 42 per cent 45-64 and 30 per cent 65+) might not meet the expectations of those members who would prefer it to project purely youthful idealism and energy and look “better” than that of the Lib Dems, it is at least healthier (no pun intended) than that of the Conservatives, getting on for half of whose members are at or nearing retirement age.

Now, there are bound to be caveats and criticisms of all this, arguing, for example, that way more Labour members live in London or are younger than our research suggests. And they might have a point. Even though YouGov’s work on Labour leadership elections suggests it has a pretty good handle on the party’s membership, the surveys it conducted for us will never be perfect and, given how much churn there is in parties’ memberships, it can only ever be a snapshot of a moving target.

Moreover, we would love to be able to compare and weight our data to the data on members held by the parties themselves, presuming of course that they hold it accurately and comprehensively, which in the Conservatives’ case is open to serious doubt. But, thus far, they have all proved rather reluctant to make it publicly available.

Any readers who feel we’ve got it wrong are most welcome to visit our website and email us – and, if they’re members, who knows, they might feel like putting forward resolutions at conference encouraging their parties to publish the figures themselves!

Originally published at https://labourlist.org/2017/10/tim-bale-inside-labours-massive-membership-base/

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‘OMG Britain’s Tories are SO OLD. Conservatives are right to be worried about their lack of popularity with young Brits’, Politico, 5 October 2017.

The Tories have an age problem. In June’s general election, some two-thirds of British voters aged 18-25 voted Labour. Only one in five voted Conservative. That’s got the party worried — and rightly so.

Once upon a time, statistics like these were easier to dismiss. Young people might lean left rather than right, but since so many of them couldn’t be bothered to actually turn up at polling stations on the day, did it really matter? And weren’t they bound to see sense as they got older anyway?

Well, no actually. There is some evidence that people become slightly more conservative as they get older, but this “life-cycle” effect is potentially offset by a “cohort effect” — the idea that, since generations carry their early political preferences with them as they age, any party that loses young voters will pay a high price as time passes.

Seen from this perspective, last summer’s election is even more worrying for the Tories than it appeared at first glance.

True, they beat Labour hands down (59 percent to 23 percent) when it came to the over 65s, and comfortably (47 percent to 33 percent) when it came to those aged 55 to 64.

But among those aged between 45 to 54, Labour drew level (taking 39 percent to the Conservatives’ 40 percent). And what’s most alarming: Among 35- to 44-year-olds, Labour won by 50 percent to 30 percent, and among 25- to 34-year-olds, it led by 58 percent to 22 percent.

Admittedly, younger people — and not only in the U.K. — still vote in significantly smaller numbers than older generations. But in the 2017 election, the gap between young and old narrowed noticeably.

Wandering around and talking to people at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, it’s obvious that a fair number of Tories know they have a problem and are beginning to wonder what they can do.

And yet, just when you think the Conservatives might figure something out, along comes a minister — in this case, self-sabotaging failed leadership contender Andrea Leadsom — to provide yet another face-palm moment.

Speaking about the brave new world that Brexit apparently constitutes for Britain’s young people (most of whom voted against it), she reassured them that “For some of you it may feel scary. But for me, on your behalf, it’s really exciting.”

If that weren’t patronizing enough, she went on to remind them of “the incredible advances in medical science, where your generation will have things fixed by robots — isn’t that extraordinary? Not only that, but probably your raspberries will be picked by robots.”

Perhaps some young adults — yes, they are adults, not toddlers — can’t wait to munch on machine-harvested fruit while recovering from android-assisted surgery. But knowing a few of them as I do in my day job as a university lecturer, I doubt that such a vision will prove sufficient to assuage their anxieties about securing a decent job.

Nor will it do much for their paramount concern: getting on the country’s increasingly unaffordable — some would say broken — housing ladder.

They’re also understandably concerned that NHS waiting lists are getting longer and longer, and primary and secondary schools are losing resources.

The Tories will have to come up with something convincing to offer people in their 20s, 30s and 40s on bread-and-butter issues if they are to have any hope of clawing back some of the support they have lost to Labour in recent years.

And doing something about university tuition fees, as the government announced it would this week, won’t cut it. Drill down into post-election survey analysis, and you will see that young people have fled the Tories because they are anxious about their future — not just because they are current or former students.

Changing how the Conservatives look and sound — and, quite frankly, are — as a party might help too. Research by the ESRC-funded Party Members Project run by Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, suggests that nearly seven in 10 grassroots Tories are men and nine in 10 are middle-class, as opposed to working-class. It also suggests that close to half of the party’s grassroots members are older than 65, while only a quarter are aged between 18 and 45.

Attracting younger members, as well as more working-class and female members, might help address another of the party’s challenges: their members’ ability to assist the party on social media compared to their Labour counterparts.

But, crucial as it is, upping the party’s game on Facebook and Twitter won’t be enough to win back young voters on its own. Neither will scrambling to set up some half-arsed equivalent to Labour’s Momentum. Nor, by the way, will replacing Theresa May with Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg do the trick.

True, as Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has shown, the right leader can help enthuse and mobilize young people. But in the end, a party needs to persuade them that it’s on their side. For the Tories, that prospect still seems an awfully long way off.

Originally published at https://www.politico.eu/article/omg-britains-tories-conservatives-party-are-so-old-demographics/

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‘How the Tory party can solve its membership crisis, in three easy steps’, Guardian, 3 October 2017.

The Conservative party no longer seems capable of winning elections by a convincing margin. Nor does it attract as many members as its main rivals. Arguably, the two things are related. A successful campaign requires cash, as well as an attractive offer to voters. But it also needs members capable of selling that offer on the ground.

The fact that the party hasn’t released membership figures since 2013 (when it was apparently around 150,000) doesn’t suggest they’re very healthy. But it’s not just numbers that matter. It’s also about who those members are and what they’re prepared to do for their party. And the findings for the Conservatives aren’t great, according to research by the Party Members Project (which I help to run, and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council).

For a start, Tory members don’t look much like voters in general. Over two-thirds are men and nearly nine out of 10 are middle class. Meanwhile, getting on for half the party’s membership is over 65, with only about one in 20 in the 18-24 age group. That helps to account for the fact that, as well as being significantly more Thatcherite on the economy than the average voter, they are socially very conservative.

The same skewed demography also contributes to the fact that Tory members seem to have done less campaigning than their counterparts in other parties at the 2017 general election. They were much less active on Facebook and Twitter, and only half as likely to display a poster. When it came to canvassing, honours were more even, and on leafleting they actually did slightly better than Labour members (though way behind the Lib Dems in that department).

But perhaps the most alarming fact is that more than four in 10 Conservative members admitted to having spent no time whatsoever helping Theresa May deliver the party’s message to voters during the election. Perhaps this dovetails with the finding that when talk turns to politics in social or work situations, Tory members seem more reluctant than members of other parties to open up to friends and colleagues about their political affiliation.

So much for the problems. What about the solutions? How does the Conservative party bag itself more boots on the ground? Our research, because it took in both members and people who strongly support the party but don’t belong to it, offers a few clues.

First, the party needs to work hard to dispel a number of pervasive myths about membership. Far too many potential members wrongly believe people join parties for essentially self-interested reasons, or simply because they belong to a certain family or social milieu – and that they end up spending huge amounts of time on mind-numbingly boring tasks.

Second, the party needs to do more to persuade people that its members are respected by the leadership and can actually play a part in determining its direction. Currently, a third of Tory members (compared with well under 10% of Labour, Lib Dem and SNP members) don’t believe – and they’re right not to – that they are respected, and more than half of them would like to see the membership have more influence on policy.

Last, the party needs to avoid giving the impression that, in an ideal world, it would really rather not involve its members even in choosing its leader – something that’s happened in two out of the past three Tory leadership contests. Around one in six of those who strongly support the party but don’t actually belong to it said it might be worth joining to have a say in who got the top job next time round. Sure, balloting the grassroots introduces more uncertainty into the process. It also involves revealing to the world just how many (or how few) members the party really has. But if it helps bring in fresh faces, then that’s a risk very much worth running.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/03/tory-party-membership-crisis-members-conservatives

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