‘Out of touch and under threat’, Sunday People, 26 February, 2017.

LABOUR was founded to represent the interests of working people. But it was a lot simpler when those people had a lot in common with each other and many MPs came from ordinary backgrounds.

As the service sector overtook manufacturing, the welfare state grew, home ownership and the consumer society expanded, more women entered the labour market, the middle class grew and the traditional working class shrank in size, the party had to appeal to a broader mass of voters.

At the same time, Labour’s ranks at Westminster were filled by middle-class graduates, many with more liberal attitudes on issues like immigration and law than the working-class MPs they replaced. Over time, Labour’s traditional core vote saw a party that no longer looked and sounded like them and which seemed more interested in political correctness than fighting to give them a bigger share of the nation’s wealth.

This triggered a vicious circle – as working-class voters drifted away, the party drifted further from them.

Reversing that process will take a miracle – and certainly a very different leader from Jeremy Corbyn.

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‘Should Ukip just dissolve itself?’, CityAM, 1 March, 2017.

The phrase “existential threat” is bandied around a lot these days, but in Ukip’s case it is an accurate description of the danger it faces.

With a Conservative Prime Minister not only determined to ensure that the UK leaves the EU but also bent on reducing immigration, people are bound to wonder whether leader Paul Nuttall and Co should bother keeping the show on the road.

But there are at least a couple of reasons not to call it a day. For one thing, for those who want out of the EU and a big fall in immigration, Ukip’s continued presence ensures that Theresa May’s feet are held to the fire.

For another, there are a whole bunch of voters who simply don’t feel represented by either of the two main parties: to them, the Tories are still too keen on shrinking the state while Labour is too politically correct. Ukip won the support of nearly 4m voters in 2015 – and polls don’t suggest they’ve given up on it yet.

Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/260022/should-ukip-just-dissolve-itself


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‘Truth to tell: populism and the immigration debate’, LSE Politics and Policy, 1 March 2017.

We are living in a world where it’s no longer ‘the economy, stupid’. That’s not to say real wages, the cost of living, and tax-and-spend don’t matter to people anymore. Clearly, they still do. But they no longer trump nearly everything else when voters make up their minds. Politics has always been multidimensional, of course. It’s that analysts of voting behaviour and public opinion used to be able to conveniently collapse most of these dimensions into the left-right spectrum. Nowadays, that’s becoming harder and harder to do.

In the United Kingdom, as in many European countries, that familiar horizontal axis is now being intersected by another, vertical one. Call it what you will – GAL-TAN (Green, Alternative, Libertarian – Tradition, Authoritarian, Nationalist), demarcation-integration, communitarian-cosmopolitan or simply open-closed – this dimension suddenly seems to matter much more than it used to. Certainly, it helps explain why 52 per cent of those voting in last year’s European Union referendum plumped for Leave rather than Remain. It also gives us an insight into why nearly four million Brits chose the populist radical right UK Independence Party (UKIP) at the 2015 general election, despite the fact the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system meant most of them were ‘wasting’ their votes on candidates without a cat’s chance in hell of winning.

Just as political scientists had begun to take it for granted we had moved from an era of ‘position politics’ (the clash of big ideas between two tribes) to an era of ‘valence politics’ (where competence and credibility counts most), culture and identity came back with a bang, made all the more explosive by a pervasive feeling – especially among voters dispossessed and disoriented by the dizzying pace of social and economic change – of ‘disconnect’ with mainstream politicians.

Migration, and the multiculturalism that inevitably comes with it, is not the only contentious issue in all this. But it is, as opinion polls and media coverage attest, by far the biggest.

The UK has experienced waves of immigration before, most notably in the 1950s, 60s and 70s when Afro-Caribbean and South Asian citizens of its former colonies journeyed to the mother country to fill labour shortages created by the post-war boom. But it had never previously experienced the sheer volume and intensity of the wave of migrants that arrived after Tony Blair’s Labour government decided not to restrict the rights of EU citizens to live and work in the UK.

The arrival of millions of foreigners from Central and Eastern Europe was bound to spell trouble. After all, the post-war, postcolonial wave of immigrants was not absorbed without considerable political conflict. Those who thought similar problems could be avoided simply because the people pouring in after 2004 were white rather than black or Asian were forgetting xenophobia can be just as powerful as racism. They were also far too complacent about the willingness and the ability of the UK’s political class to engage honestly and responsibly with its citizens.

On the centre-left, Labour politicians failed to fess up to massively underestimating the number of Eastern Europeans who would flock to take up job opportunities provided by a booming economy. And given that migrants benefited that economy, they decided not to do anything practical to address it. This inaction was clearly at odds with the government’s rhetorical response, which culminated in then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown promising ‘British jobs for British workers’, either revealing himself to be a hypocrite, or creating expectations he couldn’t possibly fulfil.

The centre-right, however, proved just as unable of treating the public like grown-ups. Casting around for anything that might put it on side with voters, it tried just about every trick in the populist playbook: then-leader of the Conservative Party William Hague claimed the people had been betrayed by a ‘liberal elite’ wilfully deaf to their concerns about ‘bogus asylum-seekers’ and the threat the single currency and the EU posed to sovereignty. If nothing was done, he claimed, Britain would soon become ‘a foreign land’.

Hague’s successors, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, did more of the same, with the latter commissioning the infamous It’s not racist to talk about immigration. Are you thinking what we’re thinking? billboard posters in the run-up to the 2005 general election. For a while, David Cameron turned down the volume on migration and the EU, but it wasn’t long before he was bashing ‘Brussels’ and helping push through increasingly draconian measures designed to fulfil a pledge – possibly one of the craziest on record – to reduce net migration into the country ‘from the hundreds to the tens of thousands’.

If all this was designed to shoot the fox belonging to UKIP – a Eurosceptic, anti-immigration party led by consummate populist Nigel Farage – it proved completely counterproductive. By talking up clashes with the EU and the need to get a grip on immigration, the Tories (aided and abetted by their friends in Britain’s notoriously partisan media) both turbocharged UKIP’s signature issues and normalised ‘us vs them’. The genie was out of the bottle, released not by the extreme but by the mainstream.

And so it was that, driven by a fatal combination of panic and complacency, Cameron called the EU referendum. And so it was that he lost it, with defiant, nativist nationalism overcoming the latent fear of economic consequences.

Cowed by the evidence that hostility to immigration played a huge part in Leave’s win, and by the equally irrefutable logic that access to the EU’s single market and the customs union are irreconcilable with permanent limitations on the free movement of its citizens, Cameron’s successor as PM, Theresa May, seems to be preparing the country for the hardest of Brexits.

The irony – as bitter as it is delicious – is that Brexit, however hard, will not see the UK ‘take back control’ of its borders, let alone fulfil May’s aspiration to reduce annual net migration to the tens of thousands. Unless, that is, the government is prepared to crash the economy as well as crash out of the EU. Without the counterbalance of immigrants, the UK’s ageing population will lead to an unsustainable dependency ratio. More pressingly, the country’s health, construction, and social care systems will begin visibly to collapse without continuing inward migration. So will much of its fruit and vegetable sector, unless farmers are suddenly prepared to pay premium wages to persuade Brits who think such work is beneath them to consider returning to the fields.

Employers across a range of businesses have made this crystal clear to May, and she and her colleagues have admitted that freer movement will probably need to be part and parcel of any post-Brexit free trade deals they manage to strike with non-European countries.

The contradictions of this are as obvious as they are ridiculous. If the referendum was won in part because of the lie that tens of millions of Turks were about to descend on Britain unless it left the EU, then it is hard to see how Brits are going to welcome a deal with Ankara that will mean exactly that. Similarly, while they might cope with a few thousand New Zealanders making their way to London, they are bound to baulk at vast numbers of Indians and Chinese.

Quite how those contradictions can possibly be resolved is difficult to see. Indeed, there is no sign whatsoever that Conservative politicians will eventually level with the public on the immigration issue. And if they don’t, their Labour counterparts won’t dare to either. All of which means the continuation of the glaring gap between rhetoric and reality that has provided politicians, whether mainstream or more extreme, with the opportunity to appeal in predictably populist fashion to voters who sense they’re not being told the whole truth. Whether, of course, they are capable of handling that truth, should they ever be presented with it, is another matter entirely.

Originally published at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/truth-to-tell-brexit-will-not-reduce-migration & http://www.democraticaudit.com/2017/02/27/politicians-havent-been-honest-with-the-public-about-immigration-they-still-arent/ & http://www.newsroom.co.nz/2017/02/23/brexit-britain/

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‘Can Labour survive Brexit?’, CityAm, 6 February 2017.

From the 1960s to the 1980s Labour was forever u-turning on whether the UK should join or leave Europe. But it seemed finally to have embraced Britain’s EU membership from the 1990s onwards.

That was certainly the impression that the party – if not its leader – created during the referendum campaign. And that’s precisely why so many Labour MPs don’t feel they can simply abandon their principles (or else their Remain-voting constituencies) and vote to trigger Article 50.

Presumably they’re hoping, once the legislation finally passes all its stages, that they can forget about what just happened by uniting with their colleagues to fight against a “hard Brexit”. But that might not be so easy. Labour has effectively given up its right to call itself pro-European and may soon find itself forced into becoming an anti-immigration party too.

That may or may not be a smart move electorally. But it means that Labour is no longer the same party that many of its members – both at Westminster and beyond – thought they’d joined.

Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/258402/labour-party-splits-over-leaving-european-union-intensify


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‘Is the Labour Party in terminal decline?’, CityAM, 4 January 2017

Businesses and political parties both operate in markets where competition can be cut-throat, where mistakes can be costly, where leadership and branding matter, and where, ultimately, the customer is king. Yet there’s one big difference: businesses – even firms so familiar we assume they’ll always be around – often go belly-up; parties – especially well-established outfits – rarely disappear completely. But rarely doesn’t mean never.

Once in a while, parties face perfect storms and, as a consequence, go under. Labour has a leader that the public can’t take seriously and a membership whose left-liberal leanings leave the majority of voters cold. Subject to a three-way squeeze between Ukip (trump card: immigration), the Lib Dems (trump card: moderate centrism), and the Tories (trump card: economic credibility), the party’s only lifeboat is our unfair electoral system.

If Labour does capsize, a few brave souls may survive by clinging onto the upturned hull until time and tide rescue them. Who knows, though, whether they will ever be able to right the ship and set sail again?

Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/256315/fabian-society-predicting-labour-could-win-just-140-seats


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‘Are elections won by members or money?’, ConservativeHome, 22 December 2016

We live in a golden age of political participation. Hard to believe it, I know. But when it comes to people joining political parties, it’s true – or at least half true.

On the one hand, huge numbers of people have joined UK political parties in the last year or two, bucking a European-wide decline that most experts had assumed was as inexorable as it was ubiquitous.

On the other hand, the surge we’ve seen recently only looks impressive because it’s occurred after decades in which membership had – bar the occasional blip – been dropping, sometimes like a stone. We are still, the pessimists are right to remind us, nowhere near the levels we saw back in the early 1950s. And the Conservative Party, which could claim to be the biggest political party this country had ever seen when its membership officially (and not altogether convincingly) peaked at 2,805,032 in 1953, is arguably in rather less rude health in this respect than its main rival, Labour, which now boasts some 600,000 members to the Tories’ guesstimated 150,000.

But should this gap really worry us? Are we too ready to assume that having lots of members is always a good thing? Is there any evidence to link growth in membership with, say, electoral success or more responsive policies? What is it that members do – or are supposed to do – for a political party? Is it inevitably positive or are there some downsides to people joining?

These are questions worth asking, especially in the light of what’s happened to Labour in the last couple of years. Cast your mind back to the 2015 election: Ed Miliband, we were told, stood a stronger chance of making it into Downing Street than many people imagined because his party had a much better ‘ground game’ than did David Cameron’s. While the Prime Minister and his colleagues were amassing a war chest that they could spend both during and, perhaps more crucially, before campaigning officially began, Ed’s grassroots were supposedly out on ‘the Labour doorstep’ having ‘five million conversations’ with voters. Well, it’s possible that they may have been – but little good it did them. The Conservatives, as we know, not only beat Labour easily but won a completely unexpected overall majority.

In other words, if elections come down to members versus money, money may well be the winner. But even more importantly, if a party’s message isn’t resonating with voters, then no amount of voter contact, whether it be canvassing by members or via Facebook through Party HQ, is going to make much difference.

And anyway, we need to remember that most members of political parties don’t think or sound like the voters they’re trying to mobilise. Whatever else is shown by the wealth of survey data on party members that my colleagues, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti, and I have collected for our ESRC-funded party membership project, it shows that they are, almost irrespective of party, better-off and better educated, and of course much more ideological and interested in politics, than those whose doors they knock on or whose phone numbers they ring.

Politicians and party staffers are well aware of this dirty little secret, which is why, traditionally anyway, they have paid far more attention, when formulating both policy and campaigns, to their own intuitions and expertise – and, of course, to opinion polls – than they have to the often very unrepresentative views of their own foot soldiers. That is not to say, however, that even in the Conservative Party (which has always preserved its leadership’s autonomy by steadfastly refusing to adopt the internal democracy which is the norm in most other parties) members have no influence at all. After all, one only has to think of Brexit to realise that pressure from the party in the country, when combined with pressure applied simultaneously at Westminster, can help paint a Tory Prime Minister into a corner from which he can escape only by doing something he would earlier have regarded (and must surely regard now) as utterly stupid.

In his classic work on the distribution of power within British political parties, Bob McKenzie, a Canadian academic who became one of the nation’s favourite political pundits back in the days of black and white television, noted that, although Labour’s constitution made it look more democratic and therefore more responsive to members than the Tories, the reality was rather different. But what happened to the party in the 1970s and 1980s, when the left temporarily seized control of the levers of power from the bottom up, suggested he’d rather overplayed its informal (but nonetheless institutionalised) elitism. Still, we all thought that normal service had been resumed after the devastating election defeat Labour suffered in 1983.

Indeed, the centralisation of power Labour experienced from the late 1980s onwards, culminating in the manifestly top-down rule of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, suggested there would be no return to what some on the right of the party clearly regarded as the bad old days of badly-dressed blokes in branch meetings and on the conference floor telling their leaders what to do. The fact that party members provided – as was also the case for the Conservatives, although not for parties like the Lib Dems and the Greens – a smaller and smaller proportion of the party’s funding only served to reinforce the common wisdom that, unlike big donors, they could be ignored.

Now, it appears, everyone spoke too soon. Partly as a reaction to the apparent control freakery of New Labour, and partly as a reaction to the unexpected loss of the 2015 election and the uninspiring continuity candidates competing to succeed Ed Miliband, the party’s membership (and not just those who joined after the election either) decided the answer to its problems lay on the left. By electing Jeremy Corbyn and giving him a mandate for a platform whose appeal to activists lies in inverse proportion to its appeal to floating voters, it has provided a perfect illustration of why mass membership isn’t necessarily an unalloyed good – at least for a party which hopes to stand some chance of governing a small-c conservative country with a sometimes vicious print media and a first-past-the-post electoral system.

This, it must be said, is a very Westminster-centric view. If we zoom out from SW1, we see that party members can and do still have a very positive role to play in British politics. Many of them are actively involved in community work and local governance, often standing as (or at least supporting) the councillors who do unsung work, day-in-day-out, for all of us.

In this, they also continue to provide the training grounds and constitute the recruitment pool from which many of those who aspire to the national stage emerge. Moreover, they form the so-called ‘selectorates’ whose approval those with loftier ambitions have to seek – a privilege which, by the way, our party members surveys suggest grassroots members are loathe to cede either to their leadership or to the wider public in the form of primaries.

Not all party members, of course, are so involved. Many of them, as our surveys show, do next to nothing for their parties apart from pay their subs – and as those responsible for collecting those subs will confirm, lots of them don’t even do that! But active or passive, members remain an essential, if sometimes awkward, part of Britain’s precious democratic life.

Originally published at http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2016/12/tim-bale-are-elections-won-by-members-or-money.html



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‘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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