‘Where now are the earthly paradises from which an idealist can take hope?’, Observer, 20 March 2016.

It is only natural, when that hopey-changey thing is in short supply at home, that idealists start looking overseas for inspiration. And for some, it doesn’t stop there. Not content with attending demos and maybe tweeting and Facebooking in support of whatever country they happen to be making common cause with, they actually go there to express their solidarity.

That is not, of course, why Barack Obama is visiting Cuba this week, but it is why British leftwingers have made the self-styled socialist paradise their holiday destination of choice for decades. Sure, the weather’s great and so is the music. But what really attracts them, as long, that is, as they can forget about all the political prisoners and all the rationing, is its defiant refusal to compromise its principles.

Lefties aren’t entirely alone in this. The British right, after all, began its ongoing love affair with the US long before the left fell head over heels for Havana. Rightwingers’ affection for the Anglosphere also means that Canada, Australia and New Zealand regularly get prayed in aid of a policy being pushed at home, be it a supposedly no-strings-attached free-trade deal, a tough-as-it-gets asylum regime, or a system of contestable advice and recruitment from the private sector in the civil service.

But the left has always – and perhaps has always had to – cast its net rather wider when looking for shining examples and sources of optimism, revolutionary or otherwise. Sadly, however, the sheer variety of countries in which it has invested its hopes, as well as the sometimes wilful naivety that helped nurture them in the first place, has seen those very same hopes dashed time and time again.

As long ago as 1956, Jimmy Porter, the antihero of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, was lamenting: “There aren’t any good, brave causes left.” And in some ways the first cut was the deepest. Many progressives had put their faith in the Soviet Union – and continued to do so long after it made any moral or practical sense – only to see it smashed to pieces by the invasion of Hungary that same year.

Fortunately, for the British left anyway, the often dark and disturbing legacy of this country’s colonial past provided plenty of other causes to latch on to. Perhaps the most significant, because it was so self-evidently ethical, was the long-running campaign against apartheid South Africa, a cause that could be easily converted, once Nelson Mandela became its first black president, into sympathy and solidarity with the “Rainbow Nation” he hoped to build.

To claim that Mandela’s project has run into the sand would be going too far. But anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to how things have gone since his departure would be hard pressed to regard today’s South Africa with starry-eyed admiration.

The same goes for the Latin American countries that used to command so much of the left’s empathy and attention. There were times, in the 80s, when deciding between the T-shirt advertising your support for the ANC and the one showing your solidarity with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua represented a serious political, as well as fashion, dilemma. It turned out, as it always seems to, that things weren’t quite as black and white as we thought.

Daniel Ortega and chums might not have been the devils they were accused of being by the Americans, but they were no angels either. And dammit if the same doesn’t apply to heroes of more recent vintage such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who left a legacy of chronic shortages and human rights violations, and now Brazil’s Lula and Rousseff, both of whom are facing allegations of high-level corruption.

Turn to the Middle East and it’s a similarly sad story. The same year that Soviet tanks trundled down the streets of Budapest, Britain, France and Israel were involved in an outlandish conspiracy to snatch back the Suez Canal from what some of the more zealous progressive opponents of the operation came close to portraying as plucky little Egypt.

Rather embarrassingly for the left, however, it was the Americans who put the mockers on the whole thing. And, once the heat had gone out of the situation, even the most dedicated anticolonialist found it hard to retain sympathy for the Egyptian dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and his brutal successors.

For a time, Israel’s kibbutz-style socialism seduced some on the left. But they couldn’t ignore the plight of the displaced Palestinians for ever, especially once voters started chucking out the centre-left in favour of rightwing hawks reliant for their Knesset majorities on some seriously dodgy characters. And then, just when the British left had begun to get comfy in their Yasser Arafat scarves, Gaza goes and elects Hamas, an organisation that even the most dedicated fan of its welfare work in the occupied territories would have to admit isn’t really progressive poster-boy material.

So where is a self-respecting radical to turn these days? Not even Scandinavia, long a good bet and a safe haven for those of a vaguely socialist or social democratic demeanour, seems up to the job any more. Maybe there was always less to it than met the eye, as Perry Anderson suggested in his 1961 essay Mr Crosland’s Dreamland. But it is harder today to argue, as Anderson noted some on the British centre-left did back then, that Stockholm is where “[e]lectoral realism and social idealism sublimely coincide”.

Nordic social democracy isn’t dead. Indeed, its entrenched values and institutions continue to constrain its opponents in ways that leftwingers living in Anglo-Saxon democracies can only dream of. But its political representatives are in no ruder health than they are anywhere else in Europe.

The Swedish Labour party may be clinging to office but the centre-right is in power in Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Norway. And in the last three cases, it governs with the support of radical rightwing parties. And the virulently xenophobic Sweden Democrats are now the third biggest force in that country.

Still, there is always Spain, in whose civil war Jimmy Porter’s idealistic dad supposedly received the wounds that eventually killed him and where the pony-tailed Pablo Iglesias is the latest leftwing pin-up – and Greece, even if its rock-star radical Yanis Varoufakis long since left the building.

Yet, if the past is any guide to the future, both countries are bound to disappoint sooner or later. Who knows, though? With Jeremy Corbyn at the helm, perhaps the British left no longer needs to look overseas to have its hopes raised and then dashed on the rocks of political reality.


Originally published at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/20/which-earthly-paradises-can-good-socialists-visit

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‘Gloves are off in Brexit battle’, Mirror, 20 March 2016.

VOTERS might never have been able to take Iain Duncan Smith too seriously, especially when he was Tory leader from 2001 to 2003. But to many MPs and ordinary grassroots members he matters.

IDS represents the “faith, flag and family” wing of the party – people who believe Britain should be outside the EU and who, while keen on the free market, reckon the rich have a responsibility to look after the less fortunate.

There are a fair few Tories of this persuasion in the Commons, and David Cameron only has a narrow majority. It is another indication the gloves are coming off in the fight between Tories who want Brexit and Boris and those who’d prefer to keep us in Europe and a smooth transition from Cameron to Osborne.

It’s not quite no-holds-barred stuff yet.

But in politics things can spin pretty swiftly out of control. Watch this space.

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‘Why Iain Duncan Smith resignation registers a six on the political Richter Scale’, The Conversation, 20 March 2016.

If there were a Richter Scale of Political Resignations, then prime ministers such as Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson and Harold Macmillan would register at the very top – on nine.

Big beasts such as Conservative Chancellor Geoffrey Howe and Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine would register at about seven. Iain Duncan Smith’s departure, on the other hand, would probably score around six.

The work and pensions secretary’s departure is the sort of earthquake that would only inflict slight to moderate damage on solid structures but is capable of causing more severe problems for less stable edifices. Unfortunately for the Conservative Party, at least in the run up to the EU referendum, it fits all-too-easily into the latter category .

Duncan Smith can hardly claim to be in the same league as Geoffrey Howe – a genuinely quiet man who altered the economic and social destiny of his country. His resignation has clearly resonated, crystallising the antipathy many Tories feel toward a chancellor they see as too clever by half and a prime minister they regard as far too desperate to keep the UK in the EU. But Howe’s resignation really detonated, blowing a decade of British politics to kingdom come by triggering the defenestration of an icon and the eventual defeat of the Conservatives by New Labour a few years later.

Still, while Duncan Smith’s departure doesn’t represent a direct threat to a sitting prime minister, like Howe’s did, it is nonetheless a direct hit on the prime minister’s entire political project. It strikes at the heart of Cameron’s attempt to persuade the country that it can trust the Conservatives to combine competence with compassion and that it should vote to stay in the EU.

The critique that came through in Duncan Smith’s resignation letter rams home the Out campaign’s portrayal of David Cameron and George Osborne as disingenuous out-of-touch toffs who don’t give a monkey’s for ordinary people. And that is one of the few narratives, along with the idea that Britain will be overrun by foreigners unless it gets out of the EU, that stands a chance of overwhelming the In campaign’s message that Brexit is a leap in the dark that will endanger Britain’s prosperity and security.

Who to believe

Blogs, newspaper columns and the airwaves have been running hot with analyses of Duncan Smith’s “real reasons” for going. But motives in these cases are always myriad and mixed. They are one part long-felt frustration (in this case over Osborne’s game-playing and determination to achieve savings without hitting those voters the Tories need most), one part eye on the main chance (in this case kicking one of the guys who is key to battling Brexit while he’s down).

It is impossible at this stage to tell whether, by resigning, Duncan Smith has inflicted a flesh wound – superficially nasty but no risk to the Remain camp in the long term – or something a whole lot more serious.

Which kind of wound it turns out to be will depend partly on the Conservative Party itself but also on the public, too. And when it comes to the latter, political junkies would always do well to remind themselves that most people aren’t paying anywhere near as much attention to all this as they are. By the time the referendum rolls round, pollsters will be lucky to find a majority of ordinary voters who not only know some Tory guy resigned back in March but that his name was Iain Duncan Something.

This weekend, then, has been a bad one for Cameron, and especially for Osborne, but earthquakes, even moderately severe ones, are very often survivable.


Originally published at https://theconversation.com/why-iain-duncan-smith-resignation-registers-a-six-on-the-political-richter-scale-56574

Also published as Why the IDS earthquake (probably) won’t kill Cameron http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/12199994/Why-the-IDS-earthquake-probably-wont-kill-Cameron.html

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‘Is George Osborne really the Political Chancellor, or just a very Tory boy?, The Conversation, 16 March 2016

Is it actually possible for anyone to pen a portrait of George Osborne without using the phrase “political Chancellor” at least once? Even those of us who start out determined not to fall into that trap end up doing so before long.

Equally hard to avoid, it seems, is the tendency to note that Osborne “doesn’t always get the politics right”. Typical examples include his decision to signal “an age of austerity” prior to the 2010 election, which helped to worry an electorate that until then looked like it might give the Conservatives an overall majority. Then, of course, came his Ominshambles Budget in 2012. His taxes on Cornish pasties, caravans and grannies were widely credited with helping Labour get back in the game – albeit temporarily. And let’s not forget his embarrassing U-turnon tax credits in 2015.

After that comes an almost obligatory paragraph reminding us that the Chancellor nevertheless has an uncanny ability to bounce back from such setbacks. Those who write him off, we must be reminded, may be speaking too soon – particularly those who think he can’t take on Boris Johnson for the Tory leadership.

Clichés, of course, are clichés only because they contain a least a grain of truth. So, while it might be tempting to swim against the tide, and to insist that Osborne only ever thinks about the economy, always makes the right calls, and is bound one day to move next door, it would be silly. All the above applies, whether we like it or not.

But still, there may be more to be said, especially if we set aside our fascination with the micro and focus for a moment on the macro – and if we forget for the moment our obsession with his climbing, or failing to climb, to the top of Disraeli’s greasy pole.

What if instead we see Osborne as the servant of the party as much as its potential master – as an ideologue as much a member of what he apparently likes to refer to as “the guild”?

Seen in these terms, the Chancellor can only be regarded as a roaring success.

Blue blooded

His austerity rhetoric may have ensured that the Tories didn’t score an outright win in 2010 but the chances of them doing so were always vanishingly small.

What it did do was to prepare the ground for what remains one of his signal achievements – turning a recession brought on by a global financial crisis into a tale of Labour profligacy and incompetence.

It’s a tale so convincing that (admittedly with some help from Ed Miliband and Ed Balls) it was still believed by many swing voters five years later. They refused to vote for Labour even in the wake of Osborne missing almost every economic target he had set for himself.

But Osborne didn’t stop there. He proceeded to prove, through a series of budgets and Autumn statements – at least to the satisfaction of sufficient numbers of voters – that the state really could survive on far less than was previously assumed possible.

At the same time, he cut both the eligibility for, and levels of, a whole series of state benefits. He has simultaneously saved a ton of money and utterly residualised “welfare”. Now, an increasing number of people see state support not as a vital safety net but as a sink into which we’ve no intention of pouring any more of our hard-earned cash than we’re absolutely forced to.

Yet Osborne has done this while, so far at least, providing sufficient (or at least sufficiently cosmetic) protection for those parts of the public realm which, however infuriating it might be for Conservative neoliberals, voters regard as non-negotiable. The most obvious examples here are the NHS and pensions.

Indeed, he’s been so careful to protect the latter that he’s turned it from a purely defensive measure into a devastatingly offensive electoral strategy. He has helped ensure that the proportion of over 65s prepared to vote Labour has plummeted – a particularly useful trick to pull off given how many of them, unlike their grandchildren, actually turn up at polling stations on election day.

He’s even managed to do that at the same time as helping to signal to the more middle-aged chattering classes, via measures such as supporting same-sex marriage, that the Tories aren’t necessarily the “nasty party” anymore.

The Chancellor, then, might not be the consummate politician, inevitably destined for the very top. But he has undoubtedly been the consummate Conservative, helping his party towards a hegemony which may only be partial but which, under the first-past-the-post electoral system and with the opposition fast fragmenting, looks good for at least a decade to come.

The columnist Gaby Hinsliff noted recently that “the liberal left is basically learning how it felt to be a Conservative in the 1990s: marginalised, defensive, feeling the argument slip away from you”. If there’s one man the Tories should thank for that, apart perhaps from Jeremy Corbyn, it’s George Osborne.


Originally published at https://theconversation.com/is-george-osborne-really-the-political-chancellor-or-just-a-hard-core-tory-56248

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‘Minority views? Labour members had been longing for someone like Corbyn before he was even on the ballot paper’ (with Paul Webb and Monica Poletti), LSE Blog, 14 March 2016

recently published blow-by-blow account of one of the biggest upsets we’ve ever seen in a Labour Party leadership contest reminds us that Jeremy Corbyn only made it onto the ballot paper due to the nominations of 35 MPs – ‘morons‘, according to John McTernan, Tony Blair’s Director of Political Operations from 2005 to 2007. Whether it’s right to blame them (or for them to blame themselves) is debatable, however. After all, the final choice lay in the hands of the Party’s grassroots. And when it comes to the role played by Labour’s members in Corbyn’s election, there’s some conventional wisdom that needs challenging.

The leadership electorate

It is all too easy for Labour moderates to comfort themselves with the idea that the 2015 contest was somehow hijacked by a bunch of left-wingers who joined over the summer. The truth is very different – and shows just how big the challenge facing those MPs who want to get rid of their leader really is. In fact, if we’d looked hard enough at Labour’s membership even before it surged over that summer, then we probably should have seen Corbyn coming.

Just after Labour lost last May’s general election, we surveyed its grassroots members as part of a study of party membership in 21st Century Britain. Rather than being presented with a pre-cooked list of runners and riders, those members were asked to write in who they would like to see take over from Ed Miliband. Out of 1,180 Labour Party members we surveyed, just two (yes, two) wrote down ‘Jeremy Corbyn’. A few months later he won the leadership by a landslide. So how on earth did that happen?

Certainly, the influx of £3 supporters over the summer helped. But we have no hard evidence that it proved decisive. Indeed, Corbyn would have won even if the franchise been restricted to members only. True, Corbyn won ‘only’ 49.6 per cent of the membership, as opposed to the 83.8 per cent of registered supporters and the 57.6 per cent of ‘affiliated’ (mainly trade union) supporters. But even if more rounds of counting had proved necessary, it is inconceivable that he would have failed to pick up sufficient second preferences to have put him over the top on members’ votes alone.

Just as importantly, many of those members who helped elect Corbyn were already in the Party before the contest was even declared. YouGov, which conducted the fieldwork for our survey, also carried out a couple of polls of the Labour leadership electorate during the summer of 2015. Those polls suggested that almost two-thirds of members voting in the leadership contest had joined the Labour Party before, not after, the 2015 general election.

Admittedly, it looks as though the ‘old’ members were rather less keen on Corbyn than the ‘new’ members. In YouGov’s final poll in September – the one which saw them get the actual result almost spot-on – Corbyn was more highly rated by those who had joined after the general election than before it. Among those new-joiners, Corbyn won 62 per cent, as opposed to 51 per cent among those who joined when Ed Miliband was leader, and 42 per cent among those who were members before he became leader in 2010.

Yet, even with the influx of all these new people after the election, the membership which voted in the leadership contest probably looked pretty similar, and thought pretty similarly, to the membership that had campaigned for a Labour victory in May 2015.

True, there were a slightly greater number of younger party members (and a slightly smaller number of older members) in YouGov’s final poll than in our survey.  But the difference (5 percentage points when it came to the 18-24 group and 3 percentage points when it came to the over 60s) was hardly huge. Socially, three-quarters of the members in YouGov’s later poll could be classified as broadly middle-class, which was also true of the members we surveyed back in May. Men were in the majority in both cases (62-38 in May compared to 59-41 later that summer). Old and new members also came from the same regions of the country: 46 per cent from London and the South, 47 per cent from the Midlands and the North.

In fact, many of those members we surveyed in May 2015 were included in YouGov’s poll of Labour members conducted just before the leadership election. Tellingly, some 44 per cent of them had by that stage decided to vote for Corbyn.

The two reasons for the swing

This huge swing to Corbyn among those members who were already in the Party at the general election of 2015 was arguably down to two things. First, there was – right from the start – very little enthusiasm for any of the other candidates. Second, there was a good deal of latent dissatisfaction, as well as latent demand for a leader who was even more socially liberal and economically left-wing than Ed Miliband.

When we asked members to write in who should succeed Ed – back when Jeremy Corbyn received two mentions – Andy Burnham was the nominal front-runner among those who eventually stood. But – and this is a big but – he was the choice of a mere 18 per cent of members, while Yvette Cooper was on 8.5 per cent and Liz Kendall on just 2 per cent.  Indeed, the most striking thing was that, in May 2015, nearly 4 out of 10 grassroots members of the Labour Party (37.5 per cent to be precise) said they didn’t yet know who they wanted as leader. Add that to the 34 per cent who named somebody other than the four candidates who eventually made it onto the ballot, and we perhaps had every reason to expect the unexpected.

But attitudes mattered too. When we asked grassroots members in May 2015 to place themselves on a left-right spectrum running from zero (‘very left-wing’) to ten (‘very right-wing’), the average score was 2.39 – slightly to the left of the average SNP member and only just to the right of the average member of the Greens.

On specific issues, 9 out of 10 Labour members who were in the Party in May 2015 wanted to see government redistributing income and thought cuts to public spending had gone too far – hardly surprising, perhaps, when nearly half of them were public sector employees. Meanwhile, probably reflecting the fact that between 60 and 70 per cent of them were middle-class graduates, eight out of ten Labour Party members in May 2015 thought that immigration was a good thing.

When asked to rank the qualities they most valued in a leader, Labour members in May 2015 put a premium on he or she having strong beliefs, while very few put the ability to unite the party top of their list. Finally, around a third of members in May 2015 didn’t feel the leadership paid them much attention and a quarter felt it didn’t respect them; 6 out of 10 wanted ordinary members to have more influence on policy.

Given all this, Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to power was, in effect, an accident waiting to happen.  Grassroots members – whether they joined before or after he was nominated by MPs – weren’t so much ‘waiting for Jezza’ in particular as longing for someone, anyone, like him – or, more precisely, someone, anyone, like them – to come along and tell them what they wanted to hear. Persuading those members that they were wrong will take quite some doing.

Originally published at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/54068-2/

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‘What Tory activists think about Cameron’s deal…and staying in the EU’ (with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb), Times Red Box, 6 March 2016

Among the majority of membership which is over (in some cases a long way over) 35, the split between those who want to leave and those who want to stay resembles the split overall. That is, six out of ten want to leave, three out of ten want to stay and one in ten have yet to decide.

Among the precious minority of Conservative party members aged 18-34, however, things are much closer. True, some 52 per cent want out, but that leaves 41 per cent who want in. That should give any Tory with a serious eye to the future food, or even pause, for thought.


It seems like a lifetime ago, even though it was only a fortnight. Hardly was the printer-ink dry on David Cameron’s late deal in Brussels before the Brexit debate had moved on to the more fundamental questions involved in Britain’s decision to leave or to remain in the EU.

Anyone who’s ever gone to pre-natal classes may be familiar with the feeling. You spend weeks and months obsessing over the birth, only to find that it’s all over in a matter of hours – and now you’re into the really serious stuff.

None of this means, however, that we should forget about the deal altogether, not least because, before it was done anyway, many Conservatives were claiming that what Cameron came back with would help them make their minds up.

Indeed, when, with the help of YouGov, we surveyed grassroots Tories in April 2015, two-thirds of them told us that their vote would depend on the terms of the PM’s renegotiation.

Now, even if some of those were simply trying to appear fair-minded – the sort of people prepared to give the man who’d just won them a general election a chance – the sheer size of that figure suggested that a large number of ordinary members of the Conservative party hadn’t yet decided which way to jump.

But that was then and this is now. And now is make your mind up time. What YouGov’s latest polling of Conservative party members shows is that most of those who have now made up their minds have broken for Brexit.

While one in ten are still undecided, six out of ten members are voting to leave – twice as many as the 30 per cent following David Cameron’s lead and voting to remain.

How Conservative members would vote on EU

Remain a member of the European Union Leave the European Union Don’t know
All Members (N=1,005) 28.76 60.3 10.95

Cameron’s deal does appear to have made some difference. Overall, most party members were not impressed. Given how Eurosceptic they are, however, the fact that though 57 per cent of them thought it was a bad deal 43 per cent thought it was good could still count as a win for the PM.

It is ultimately impossible, of course, to say with certainty whether views on the need to stay or leave were driven by views on the deal, or vice versa, but there’s clearly a correlation between the two.

Some 89 per cent of those who thought Cameron got a bad deal are going to vote to leave, whereas 62 per cent of those who thought he pulled off a good deal are voting to remain.

Voter intention based on view of Cameron’s deal

Remain a member of the European Union Leave the European Union Don’t know
All Members (N=1,005) 28.76 60.3 10.95
Good Deal 61.78 24.04 14.18
Bad Deal 4.11 88.55 7.33

Drilling down into the figures allows us once more to challenge the common wisdom that Tory activists are particularly more likely to want out of the EU.

If we separate party members into those who canvassed voters in 2015, either face to face or on the phone, and those who didn’t, then the first group are more likely to be voting to leave. But the difference (62 per cent of the activists as against 58 per cent of the rest) is tiny: just four percentage points.

Voter intention based on level of activism

Remain a member of the European Union Leave the European Union Don’t know
All Members (N=1,005) 28.76 60.3 10.95
Low intensity’ activity* 32.45 58.49 9.06
High intensity’ activity** 27.59 61.87 10.55

* low intensity activity: displaying election poster, liking on Facebook, following a political party on Twitter
**high intensity activity:  canvassing on the telephone, canvassing door to door

Whether this inconvenient truth will ever register with commentators hooked on the narrative that Cameron is in serious trouble with precisely those Tory members the party relies on to deliver its ground game is a moot point.

It’s a point worth making, however, when we speculate about whether what we might call the really useful part of the party in the country will simply cease to function if  voters reject Brexit. Yes, only one in three will be delighted while six out of ten will be disappointed. But whether most of the latter group will walk away from the party in disgust is highly debateable.

In fact, what really distinguishes Outers and Inners among the Tory membership is first, ideology, and second, age.

Here the differences are really striking. More than half (56 per cent, to be precise) of the 12 per cent of members who see themselves as on the left of the party are planning to vote to remain. And eight out of ten of the 45 per cent of members who regard themselves as on the right of the party are going to vote to leave. Most Tories are Eurosceptic, but the real headbangers are on the right.

Voter intention by Tory ideology

Remain a member of the European Union Leave the European Union Don’t know
All Members (N=1,005) 28.76 60.3 10.95
On the right of the party 11.97 79.6 8.43
On the centre of the party 38.86 48.1 13.03
On the left of the party 55.65 32.26 12.1

But age also matters.

Among the majority of membership which is over (in some cases a long way over) 35, the split between those who want to leave and those who want to stay resembles the split overall. That is, six out of ten want to leave, three out of ten want to stay and one in ten have yet to decide.

Voter intention by age of Tory members

Remain a member of the European Union Leave the European Union Don’t know
All Members (N=1,005) 28.76 60.3 10.95
18-34 41.35 51.92 6.73
35+ 27.34 61.16 11.5

Among the precious minority of Conservative party members aged 18-34, however, things are much closer. True, some 52 per cent want out, but that leaves 41 per cent who want in.  That should give any Tory with a serious eye to the future food, or even pause, for thought.


Originally published at http://www.thetimes.co.uk/redbox/topic/the-europe-question/what-tory-activists-think-about-camerons-deal-and-staying-in-the-eu


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‘The bloody history of civil war in the Tory party’, Financial Times, 27 February 2016

That the Conservative party believes as much in the strong state as it does in the free economy has long been both its triumph and its tragedy.

Triumph because the combination of the two has often proved electorally unbeatable. Think Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan in the 1950s, Stanley Baldwin in the 1930s, even Lord Salisbury in the 1890s.

Tragedy because, when tensions have arisen between the desire for unfettered trade and competition, on the one hand, and sovereign national government, on the other, the party tends to turn in on itself, losing office as a consequence. Think John Major in the 1990s, Edward Heath in the 1970s, Arthur Balfour, Andrew Bonar Law (and, for a while, Baldwin) in the Edwardian era, and, perhaps most famously, Robert Peel, whose decision to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846 split his party so badly that it effectively found itself cast into opposition for decades.

Because the Tories have always cared as much for men as measures, their arguments over high principle take on an extra edge by being bound up with high politics. The really big splits in the Conservative party’s long history have always seen fights over an issue conflated with competition for the crown. Hardly, surprising, then, that Remain v Leave is also about Dave v Boris.

Benjamin Disraeli, for instance, was thinking about his own prospects as much as he was about the party’s policy when he threw in his lot with its powerful landed interests, who were outraged at what they saw as Peel’s betrayal of British agriculture. Half a century later, Joseph Chamberlain’s campaign for tariffs undoubtedly had as much to do with his ambition to lead the party as it did with his belief that Britain (and the Empire) would be best served by erecting barriers to free trade.

Fast forward to the early Seventies and it is obvious that many of those objecting to Heath taking Britain into Europe — most obviously Enoch Powell — were motivated, yes, by heartfelt objections to the loss of sovereignty that accession entailed, but also by often very personal animus against the prime minister.

In the 1990s, too, rows over Europe were also rows about leadership. In the run-up to the 1992 general election, John Major returned to a hero’s welcome after supposedly winning “game, set and match” in the negotiations over the Maastricht treaty. But when the UK’s ignominious post-election exit from the European exchange rate mechanism cost the Conservatives their opinion poll lead, as well as their long-held reputation for economic competence, things quickly began to look very different.

Suddenly, Tories who insisted that Thatcher had been stabbed in the back by a cabal of Europhile colleagues were no longer dismissed as embittered obsessives. Maastricht quickly came to be seen by a substantial minority of their fellow MPs as a humiliation rather than a high-point of British diplomacy. If they could not prevent the treaty’s ratification, then they would undermine Sir John and replace him with someone capable of getting the party back on Thatcherite track.

Even when that finally happened, however, in the wake of Labour’s 1997 landslide, arguments over the party’s direction inevitably got mixed up with an argument over who should be in charge: first, Michael Portillo or William Hague; then Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard; and finally David Davis or David Cameron?

It was Mr Cameron, of course, who got the nod in 2005, after a third general election defeat. But rather than disabusing his party of the notion that Brussels was the source of all Britain’s problems, or else allowing it to lead the charge against the EU, he (not uncharacteristically) fudged that decision. Even his eventual call for an in-out referendum following a renegotiation of the UK’s membership is just another example of his trying to have it both ways.

That the referendum now seems to be generating headlines about civil war in the party, however, cannot simply be blamed on Mr Cameron’s cowardice or, for that matter, on London mayor Boris Johnson’s semi-naked ambition.

The reason that things are as bad as they are, and may get worse before they get better, is because, unlike the Corn Laws and tariff reform, this country’s membership of the EU does not — at least in the eyes of Eurosceptics — represent a choice between the free economy and the strong state. Indeed, in their view, the very opposite applies: staying in Europe threatens both of the Conservative party’s core principles. Rather than boosting Britain’s potential as a free-trader, any pooling of sovereignty is seen by sceptics as undermining it, removing our right to cut regulation and the trade deals we need to survive in a globalised world.

The real problem for the Tories is that this analysis is essentially shared both by those in the party who want to remain in the EU and those who want to leave. As a result, the Conservatives are currently having the worst kind of argument anyone can have — an argument between friends. Moreover, they find themselves in the bizarre situation in which an apparently binary decision — in or out — stands virtually no chance of settling that argument. Even if we leave, the rows over our relationship with the EU will continue.

The only consolation in all this — for the Tories if not for the rest of us — is that there is zero risk, given the parlous state of the Labour party, that any of this will cost them, as it has before, their hold on Downing Street. For once, civil war is a luxury the Conservatives can easily afford.

Originally published at https://next.ft.com/content/6afad41c-dbe1-11e5-a72f-1e7744c66818



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