‘Britain has never been more European’, Politico, 28 May 2019.

Britain, welcome to Europe.

Nigel Farage’s upstart Brexit Party — which ran away with 32 percent of the vote and is set to gain 28 seats in the European Parliament — has blown the United Kingdom’s political system to pieces. And paradoxically, it’s made it more “European” in the process.

With the Conservatives and Labour Party bleeding support, and big gains for Farage, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, the two-party system looks like it might be on its last legs — replaced by the multiparty pluralism that drives politics in much of Europe.

As hard as it may be to concede for those determined to buy into the myth of British exceptionalism, the U.K. is following in its neighbors’ footsteps.

Austria, Estonia and Germany — to name just three — have all reckoned with the rise of an extremist party in national politics. And across the EU, traditional catch-all parties of the center right and center left have also seen massive drops in support. New cleavages that cut across class divides have boosted the popularity of political startups on their flanks — be they populist far-rightists, radical centrists (à la Macron), radical leftists (como Podemos), Green parties, or even separatists.

Welcome to fragmentation, polarization, volatility and the erosion of traditional party loyalties.

This is not the first time, of course, that a populist, radical-right, British insurgency led by Farage has topped a European poll and sent a big bunch of MEPs to make as much mischief (and as much money) as possible in Brussels and Strasbourg: In 2014, the U.K. Independence Party (may it rest in peace) won 27 percent of the vote.

Despite Farage’s win this weekend, he is arguably no closer to holding office back home. As the former UKIP leader knows from experience, it’s by no means easy to turn what is effectively a protest vehicle (albeit a much flashier and better engineered one this time) into an all-singing, all-dancing outfit that people — even the people who play a starring role in every populist’s wet dreams — reckon is ready for government.

The more immediate implications of this European election for the U.K. is the collapse of its two big mainstream parties. If UKIP’s win five years ago sent tremors through British politics, this year’s Brexit Party upset is more like a full-scale earthquake.

Five years ago, the big two — let’s carry on calling them that for the sake of argument — performed woefully, but were still relatively close on UKIP’s heels (with 24 percent for Labour and 23 percent for the Tories). Together, they could claim to have the support of nearly half the country. That argument can’t be made this time around: Support for the two parties amounts to barely more than a quarter of the vote.

Labour’s share, at 14 percent, is its worst at a nationwide election in 100 years, and has already prompted calls for the party to pivot toward calling for a second referendum in order to stop the resurgent Liberal Democrats (on 20 percent), Greens (12 percent), and Scottish National Party (38 percent in Scotland) in their tracks.

But it’s the Conservatives’ share, at only 9 percent, that’s truly catastrophic. Perhaps most disastrously for the country, the result all but guarantees that they will now order the full English Brexit — namely a promise to leave the EU with or without a deal on October 31, cooked for our delectation by a charismatic leader like former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

Sure, the Tories have almost certainly lost some votes in Remain regions to the Lib Dems. But neither the Tory MPs nor the grassroots Tory members who will vote to replace Prime Minister Theresa May as party leader are going to be listening to that particular still small voice.

Tory thinking (if you can call it that) goes something like this: By calling for Brexit to happen by Halloween, deal or no deal, the party can claw back most of the support it’s clearly lost to Farage by the next general election. After all, the argument goes, a year after UKIP’s 2014 triumph, David Cameron won an overall majority for the Conservatives.

This time, however, the Tories have even more reason to be worried. Cameron’s victory was the result of Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which favors large parties over small ones. But should the Brexit Party manage to maintain its lead over the Conservatives, then there’s no telling to which party that advantage will accrue.

We’ve been slowly moving away from two-party politics in the U.K. for decades now. The European election results might be the moment when we finally kiss it goodbye.

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‘May’s Fatal Flaw’, UnHerd, 24 May, 2019.

After the initial surge of sympathy provoked in my sentimental old soul by Theresa May’s tears at the end of her speech in Downing Street, all I could think of were Oscar Wilde’s words on Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone,” Wilde wrote, “to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

It was a speech of epic self-delusion and self-justification, followed by a veritable flood of hypocrisy from many of those who had made her life – indeed, all our lives – a misery for the last two years. Ultimately, though, they aren’t to blame for the mess the country and the Conservative Party is in today. She is. Where, then, did it all go so terribly wrong?

It was as soon as she stepped through the door of Number Ten Downing Street. Instead of turning round and telling people, particularly in her own party, the truth – namely that the referendum was a close run thing, that people had voted Leave for a myriad of different reasons, that the Irish border was bound to prove problematic, and that, more generally, the EU-27 weren’t going to allow the UK to have its cake and eat it – she decided to present herself as Brexitier-than-thou.

Quite why we can only guess. There are a number of possibilities, even leaving aside the temptation to cast her erstwhile adviser, Nick Timothy as the serpent.

Perhaps it was pure partisan opportunism – the thought of the Tories pulling off Brexit and pulling in many of the four million voters who had supported UKIP in 2015. Perhaps it was the need to prove her personal bona fides after playing the role of reluctant Remainer in the referendum campaign. Perhaps it was her tendency, after five years as Home Secretary, to see everything through the prism of immigration: Vote Leave stressed it; therefore the referendum was won on it; therefore free movement must end; therefore hard Brexit.

From that initial decision everything else flowed.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2019/05/what-was-mays-fatal-flaw/

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‘Why we all need a share in capitalism’, UnHerd, 13 May 2019.

Was Margaret Thatcher right? Not about everything, obviously. Only the true-Blue keepers of the flame believe that, surely?

But was she right about ‘popular capitalism‘, the intuitively plausible idea formed by Tories in heady days of the Eighties that held that spreading share-ownership via the privatisation of publicly owned firms and industries would give ordinary Brits ‘a stake in the market’ and, in so doing, would push them to vote Conservative instead of Labour?

The answer, according to some intriguing research I heard about this week during a trip to the States, suggests she might have been.

As far as I’m aware, Lady Thatcher had no personal connection with Princeton, one of the USA’s Ivy League universities, although one of the best recent books on her was written by Sir David Cannadine, a British historian and Princeton faculty member.

But it was here that I attended a colloquium exactly 40 years to the day after Thatcher first entered Downing Street as Prime Minister, and where I heard Yotam Margalit, from Tel Aviv University, present some research he’d conducted with Moses Shayo from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Margalit wasn’t talking about Thatcher, but the findings of his research would, I’m sure, have pleased the Iron Lady no end. As a trained chemist, Thatcher would especially have liked the fact that they resulted not from desk research, but from an experiment.

The experiment was a complex one, with different ‘treatments’ applied to subgroups of the sample of 1,500 English participants. In essence, however, it involved giving the participants, most of whom had never invested in the stock market, £50 to spend over the course of two months on buying and selling stocks on a web-based platform.

In the weeks before and afterwards they, along with a control group, were also asked a range of apparently unrelated questions designed to tap into their underlying social and political attitudes, as well as some more specific, policy-related questions on tax, spending, and regulation.

The results? The people who actually got to trade stocks, they found, ‘shifted rightward’ in their social-economic values. This influenced their attitudes on economic fairness, inequality and redistribution, the role of luck in economic success. They also found that ‘exposure to the market increased subjects’ confidence in the ability of regular people to successfully invest in the market, as well as their own inclination to invest’.

Although there was no shift in participants’ views on policy, such as whether government should provide either more or less generous benefits to the jobless, they did become less sympathetic to the idea of taxing investment gains and regulating the market. They also became much keener on the idea that people be allowed to invest some of their national insurance contributions in the stock market, even if that that meant more meagre retirement funds for those whose gambles didn’t pay off.

Moreover, and in some ways most fascinatingly of all, this ‘rightward shift in social-economic values’ occurred among both left and right-wing voters but was ‘more pronounced among those on the left’. They also found ‘little evidence that the change in attitudes was determined by how well participants’ investments performed’. Amazingly, Margalit and Shayo discovered that the effects on attitudes that came about by playing the stock market were still there when they followed up participants a year later.

These results are striking but they also accord with research based on the science of elections gathered during the late 1980s, which suggests a relationship between share ownership and increased Conservative voting and a similar tendency among the millions who bought shares in the utilities privatised by Thatcher.

Even if those correlations weren’t spurious, popular capitalism (and what Left-wingers consider its evil twin, ‘the property owning democracy’ kickstarted through council house sales), could do the trick forever.

Thatcher herself was unceremoniously dumped by her parliamentary party when the economy tanked soon after her third successive victory in 1987, at which point it had become clear she and many of her flagship policies had become an electoral liability. And although her party managed to pull off a surprise win in 1992, it got its comeuppance in 1997 and, frankly, has struggled ever since.

Nevertheless, leaving time and chance aside, and incorporating a little bit of economic history, this latest research suggests that it wasn’t so much that providing people with the opportunity to own shares failed to shift them to the Right, but that it involved far too few people to pay off long-term, at least electorally.

It’s estimated that around three million individuals owned shares in 1979, and by 1987 the figure had risen to over eight million. But many of the smaller investors were in it for immediate short-term gain, while relatively few were so bitten by the bug that buying shares in privatised companies led them to expand their portfolios to include other asset classes.

In any case, eight million people was only ever a small proportion of the total population. Ownership of UK listed shares by individuals fell precipitately in the 60s, 70s, and, yes, the 80s too, and now stands at around 12%, which incidentally is around the European average. Establishing the proportion of the UK’s population that owns shares individually as opposed to through, say, pension funds, is far harder. Apparently, nearly nine million people in the UK hold stocks and shares ISAs, which constitutes less than one in five of us – a figure which accords neatly with the 19% estimate quoted in a 2015 ResPublica report.

Even if Margalit and Shayo are right, then, capitalism would need to be a lot more popular – in the literal sense of more people owning more shares – to make as big a difference to the nation’s politics and attitudes as Thatcher firmly believed it would.

Sceptics will argue that their findings were produced ‘in the lab’, and that things would be very different in the real world. They may say that in reality, people playing with their own hard-earned cash would lead to devastating losses in their standard of living as well as their faith in financial markets – the very thing the researchers think may (along with sheer familiarity) be driving the attitude shifts they observe.

But that prompts a further question. Would anything that contributed to distrust of financial markets have opposite effects to those that the research discussed here discovered?

Could another crash, or simply a gnawing feeling that the markets are rigged in favour of big banks and crony capitalists, generate support for greater regulation, a more comprehensive safety net, and the idea that failure or success is as much a product of society as it is of individual effort and responsibility? Politicians of every stripe would do well to bear that in mind.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2019/05/how-capitalism-can-change-politics/

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‘Is Corbyn doing the country a favour?’, UnHerd, 3 May 2019.

Jeremy Corbyn is not for turning. Swinging Labour behind another referendum seems to make sense on so many levels. Yet, for the moment anyway, he simply won’t do it – to the obvious frustration not just of #PeoplesVote fans but of many Labour MPs and trade union leaders, most of the party’s ordinary members, and, as he’s made very clear on several occasions now, Labour’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson. And Labour’s rather ‘meh’ showing at last night’s local elections certainly isn’t going to persuade its leader to change his mind.

But could Corbyn, by making what might be a big mistake in the short to medium term, end up doing the country a huge favour in the long term? By sitting on the fence he just might prevent the already painful polarisation between Leave and Remain voters from creating a partisan divide between Labour and the Conservatives to rival the one between Democrats and Republicans that’s disfiguring politics across the pond.

Declaring Labour’s support for a second, ‘confirmatory’ referendum would undoubtedly be a logical move for Corbyn. It would open up the possibility not just of topping the poll at the European elections (an accolade which on current form will otherwise go to the Brexit Party, just as it went to UKIP in 2014), but of strangling Change UK in its cradle or, if that’s too murderous a metaphor for you, blowing up its planes while they’re still on the ground. It would also stop what, after the locals, is bound to be trumpeted (with some justification, it has to be said) as #libdemfightback.

Before anyone gets on my case, yes I know – or at least think I know – why Corbyn won’t make that move.

For a start, there’s the ‘Lexiteer’ perspective he shares with his hard-Left advisors and trade union allies. Just because most economists deride the idea that EU membership presents an obstacle to a faster growing, more ‘socialist’ Britain, it doesn’t mean Corbyn and co. are going to stop believing that it does anytime soon.

And then, of course, there’s the widespread concern among many (but by no means all) Labour MPs in ‘Leave constituencies’ that being seen to do anything that smacks of stopping Brexit will lose them the support of ‘traditional Labour voters’ or ‘the white working class’. Doubtless those MPs will be citing Labour’s disappointing local election results in some Leave voting areas in the north of England as ‘evidence’.

Again, expert opinion would differ. It’s not just a matter of refusing to lump all sorts of very different people together in outdated, subjective, and fetishised categories. Or of being wary of extrapolating too much from the outcome of council contests. It’s also about preferring solid survey research over the faux-concern for their constituents or  ‘democracy’ expressed by a bunch of politicians arguably more interested in hanging on to their precious seats in parliament than the fate of the country as a whole.

Naturally, those politicians will dismiss that research: no-one but no-one, especially a bunch of ivory-tower academic number crunchers and London-based polling companies, will ever persuade an MP that they don’t know ‘their patch’ and ‘their people’ quite as well as they think they do – something which presumably accounts for the stunned incredulity with which so many defeated incumbents greet their demise at general election after general election.

But, to me at least, that research suggests that supporting a second vote wouldn’t actually lose Labour many, if any, seats anyway. And it also suggests that, even if it did, Labour might well win seats elsewhere as a result.

We also need to factor in the opportunity costs that Labour may have to pay for continuing to sit on the fence. True, a fair few of its members and supporters, whatever their t-shirts say, ultimately love Corbyn more than they hate Brexit. But not backing a second referendum – or whatever euphemism you prefer to call it – is, over time, still going to alienate an awful lot of them.

Maybe not so badly that they’ll immediately take to Twitter with their party cards and a sharp pair of scissors. But enough to see them slowly drift away or at least out of the ‘high-intensity’ activities (canvassing, leafletting, etc.) that are still so vital in first-past-the-post contests – something that Labour learned to its advantage, and the Tories to their cost, in 2017.

The eight-month run-up to that election saw Theresa May dismiss any notion that the 2016 Referendum had produced a close result which, along with the difficulties the UK was always going to face negotiating with a more powerful interlocutor, implied the best course to pursue was some sort of Norway-style arrangement. Instead, she went for a hard Brexit designed to appeal to Leave voters – many (though not all) of them socially conservative, less well-heeled and less well-educated – and in particular to the four million voters (13% of the electorate) who two years previously had voted for UKIP.

Sadly for Mrs May (and, as it turned out, fatally for her hopes of honouring her promise to extract the UK from the EU by 29 March 2019), she was only partially successful. Although she increased the Tories’ vote share (from 36.9% to 42.4%), the narrow majority they won under David Cameron in 2015 evaporated, leaving them as a minority government reliant on a dodgy support arrangement with the Brexit-supporting DUP.

True, the Conservatives did win over (and in many cases win back) many former UKIP voters, but only rarely in sufficient numbers in the places where they stood a chance of winning seats from Labour.

Meanwhile, Labour, despite its leader’s ambivalence during the referendum campaign, and despite its pledge to honour the result of the referendum, picked up votes from those sections of the electorate most likely to have voted Remain, namely the younger, the better educated and the more socially liberal. But because many of them were located in more urban areas where Labour would have won anyway, and because Tory support also rose, the party’s big improvement in vote share (from 30.4% to 40%) resulted in a much smaller, 30-seat improvement in seat share.

At that point, the stage was surely set for Britain’s two main parties to make Brexit and, crucially, the values associated with Remain and Leave voting, the main divide between them. And in many ways it still is – but for Jeremy Corbyn.

Few can doubt that the Conservatives’ response to what has happened since – most worryingly the rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party  – will be to become, in nature if not in name, what Nick Timothy (once seen as some sort of Rasputin to May’s Tsarina), has taken to calling the National Party. Losing seats at the locals in some Remain-voting areas in the South might give them pause for thought, but it’s unlikely, particularly when Brexiteers can (and will) point to picking up the odd council in the West Midlands – an area that traditionally helps decide the result of general elections.

Now, if politics were physics it would presumably obey Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there would be an equal and opposite reaction. The Conservatives’ seemingly inexorable drift towards what many of its more moderate MPs see as populism, jingoism, and intolerance would be matched by a Labour Party catering only for those for who shudder to think of such things.

Anyone who wonders what that might do to our politics only has to look across the Atlantic, ideally with a copy of Lilliana Mason’s provocative but persuasive book, Uncivil Agreement, in their hands. The polarisation we are witnessing in the USA is driven not just by the fact that Americans are divided by race, religion, and whether they see themselves as conservative or liberal, but by the fact that these identities, via social sorting, increasingly map on to the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats.

Nobody, surely, wants to see that kind of poisonous politics play out here. All of which raises the intriguing possibility – even for those who want to see Corbyn commit his party to a referendum and to remaining in the EU – that, by resolutely refusing to do either, he might be doing precisely the right thing, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2019/05/is-corbyn-doing-the-country-a-favour/

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‘Let’s junk our electoral system’, UnHerd, 19 March 2019.

“The crisis”, according to Antonio Gramsci, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Sure, those lines were penned (in prison as it happens) sometime between 1926 and 1935. But Gramsci’s oft-quoted phrase provides an eerily accurate description of UK party politics in 2019.

For decades after Labour replaced the Liberals as the main opposition to the Tories – early in the twentieth century – this country’s politics largely (although never exclusively) revolved around arguments over the size of the state and how much governments should tax, spend, and redistribute.

Voters were relatively class conscious and often maddeningly tribal – content to choose between one of the two main players whose dominance was, at least in part, underwritten by the first-past-the-post electoral system that the UK, unlike most other advanced liberal democracies, decided to stick with.

That two-party system first began to fray at the edges in the early 1970s, its threads pulled by a combination of rising Scottish (and then Welsh) nationalism, and disillusionment with both Labour and the Tories, which led to the Liberals winning nearly a fifth of the vote in 1974. A much bigger tear then occurred in the mid-eighties, when Labour’s lurch to the Left and the Conservatives’ lurch to the Right gave rise to the SDP and eventually the Lib Dems.

Since then, the two-party system has only crept closer and closer to its eventual demise: the Lib Dems held the balance of power in 2010, forcing David Cameron into a coalition; the SNP became Scotland’s biggest party five years later, after an election in which UKIP won nearly four million votes, albeit only one measly seat.

True, the two main parties appeared to bounce back in 2017, their combined vote share exceeding 80% for the first time in a long time. But anyone who thinks their problems are over is fooling themselves, not least because cultural divides brought to a head, but not caused by, Brexit (over national identity, migration and multiculturalism, law and order, etc.) are now every bit as important as the economic divides that previously reinforced Conservative-Labour predominance. Voters are not only more volatile and less tribal; they also care more nowadays about stuff that undermines both the unity and the traditional appeals and agendas of the big two.

As a result, the Tories, despite Theresa May’s best efforts to tack to the Right, remain vulnerable to a radical populist alternative on one flank (be it UKIP/Tommy Robinson or the Brexit Party) and, precisely because of those self-same efforts, to whatever the TIG morphs into on the other.

But TIG, particularly if it manages to absorb the Lib Dems, also represents a serious potential threat to the Labour Party – all the more so if Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s newly-established party-within-a-party, Future Britain, presages mass defections. And nor, given young people’s concerns about climate change, should we completely forget about the Greens.

The UK, then, is already a multi-party system – not just an embryonic one, but a near-term one: a living, kicking entity that reflects the sheer diversity of a truly 21st century electorate. But it’s a system that currently can’t be born, leading to the “interregnum” we’re currently trapped in and the “morbid symptoms” Gramsci referred to – most obviously a whole bunch of voters, and their parliamentary representatives, who are disoriented, anxious and often angry about the direction that what they used to think of as ‘their’ parties seem to be taking.

What is stopping this fully-fledged multi-party system from coming into being is obvious. Indeed, it’s been staring everyone in the face for years. It’s the first-past-the-post, plurality electoral system that (unless, like the SNP, their support is geographically concentrated) massively disadvantages small parties, not least by persuading people that, however much they might like them, a vote for them is a wasted vote.

What we need to do – no, what we absolutely have to do – is to junk an electoral system that is manifestly unfit for purpose and replace it with a proportional alternative that would allow voters to vote for parties that actually reflect their shifting preferences rather than forcing them to choose which one of the big two seems likely to do the least worst damage.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Changing the electoral system; hardly a radical idea, right?  Haven’t people – often very, very boring people – been banging on about it for ages? Didn’t we have a referendum on it a few years back? And wasn’t it rejected by an overwhelming majority?

Well, yes and no. There was a referendum in 2011 (one which, incidentally, allowed the road-testing of many of the techniques later used by the Leave campaign to secure victory in 2016).  But the electorate was offered an utterly uninspiring, and some would say false, choice between FPTP and the Alternative Vote (AV) – a system whose main advocate, the by then terminally toxic Nick Clegg, had previously (and tellingly) referred to as ‘a miserable little compromise’. No wonder only four out of ten voters could even be arsed to turn out.

Frankly, we should aim much, much higher. Like New Zealand did in the early 1990s, when frustration with the two main parties boiled over into demands to end their in-built, in-bred duopoly, we should follow a two stage process. Stage one: a chance for advocates to educate people about the myriad different systems out there and then to find out, in a referendum, which of those systems they would plump for, assuming there were to be a change. Stage two: a referendum to determine whether they’d prefer to stick with the devil they know or dump it in favour of the winner of that initial public vote.

In New Zealand, the process resulted in the country plumping for MMP – the mixed member proportional system that’s used in Germany and (although, for technical reasons, it’s less proportional there) for elections to the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales.

Essentially, voters get two votes – one that allows them to decide who their local MP will be and a second that sees them pick parties rather than individual candidates and that, once all the votes are counted, ensures (subject to a threshold designed to exclude really, really small outfits) that parties’ share of seats in parliament reflects their share of the vote in the country.

Were the UK to follow its former dominion’s example it would, as it did there, massively shake up and shake out politics without nixing the ‘constituency link’ we still seem to value. Even if today’s two main parties survived, their parliamentary and governmental hegemony would be challenged by a number of smaller parties, at least some of them based not, as now, simply on narrow nationalism but on big ideas – ideas that, however much some people may hate or even fear them, resonate with millions of people all over the country, but which are currently underrepresented (if they are represented at all) in its legislature.

Brexit didn’t blow up British politics. It was in big trouble already. Since there’s no point trying to put the genie back in the bottle, then I’m going to ask him to grant me at least one wish: PR for the UK. Not entirely novel, I admit. But radical? You bet.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2019/03/lets-junk-our-electoral-system/

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‘Both the Conservatives and Labour are in thrall to member power’, FT, 25 May 2019.

“It’s a funny old world,” observed Margaret Thatcher as she was forced by her party to step down as Tory leader and UK prime minister back in 1990. She’d won the Conservatives three elections on the trot — two of them with three-figure majorities in the House of Commons — and yet here they were, unceremoniously dumping her and moving on.

Well, since then the world — or at least Toryworld — has got funnier still.

Notwithstanding the reputation for ruthlessness that Thatcher’s defenestration served to reinforce, it has taken the party two whole years to get shot of a leader who not only failed to increase its parliamentary majority but actually managed to blow it completely in a campaign whose wheels fell off as soon as it got going.

Moreover, the party now proposes to conduct a leadership contest that, unlike the one that followed the Iron Lady’s forced departure, will be decided not simply by its MPs, at least some of whom will have a pretty good idea of what the job entails and, therefore, the capacity of the contenders actually to do it, but by 100,000 or so grassroots members, who, with the best will in the world, maybe aren’t as well placed to judge.

Nor can those rank-and-file members be said to resemble anything approaching a microcosm of the country over which whoever they choose as their leader will soon be charged with running. They don’t look like it and they don’t think much like it either. This is particularly true when it comes to Brexit: indeed, they are three times as likely as voters to favour Britain leaving the EU without a deal.

And therein lies one of the most intriguing paradoxes of British politics — namely that the party that gives its members the least formal say on policy has found its policy most influenced by them, especially on the existential issue of Europe. And this in spite of the fact that their numbers have dwindled rather than burgeoned in recent years.

Without being able to discuss, let alone actually pass, a single policy resolution at conference (an occasion that, for the Conservatives, is little more than a corporate cash cow crossed with a beauty contest-cum-networking opportunity for the egregiously ambitious), the grass roots have helped turn what was once a heretical view held only by a few Eurosceptic ultras into what, for the majority of the party, is now an absolute given — namely that the UK is “better off out”.

Compare that to the influence (or rather the lack thereof) wielded by Labour’s much larger membership. For all their party’s much-vaunted internal democracy — albeit a democracy somewhat mitigated by the muscle of the trade unions — an overwhelmingly Remain rank and file has so far found it impossible to push its leadership off the fence on Brexit. And this in spite of the fact that said leadership was elected in no small part because it promised, in terms, and unlike Voldemort (sorry, I mean Tony Blair), to be guided by what they wanted.

Certainly, if Jeremy Corbyn changes his mind anytime soon it won’t be because he has finally decided to honour those promises, but because he (or rather his advisers) have been persuaded by the results of the European Parliament elections that his pro-Brexit prevarication is no longer the magical masterstroke it appeared to be the 2017 general election.

All of which suggests that member power does not, in the end, really lie in any formal involvement in a party’s policymaking — something that most leaders can navigate their way around anyway.

Rather it lies, first, in members’ dogged determination to pick as parliamentary candidates only those hopefuls who conform to their preferences on the one thing they decide really matters. And, second, in their perceived willingness to support the removal of their leader by someone else they can be persuaded to believe better reflects those preferences — something that MPs (actual and prospective) cannot help but pick up each and every time they get their ears bent at events back in their constituency.

Political parties, whether they call themselves leftwing or rightwing, mainstream or insurgent, are, like businesses, so much more than a bunch of organograms showing who’s in charge of who. They are living, breathing cultures — an ever-shifting balance of forces between the management, the workforce, the salesforce and the customer. Who runs the show is clearly important — but it’s by no means all that matters.

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/65dd73f0-7e17-11e9-8b5c-33d0560f039c

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‘Tory leadership: Who gets to choose the UK’s next prime minister?’, BBC, 25 May 2019.

With Theresa May finally on her way out of Downing Street, a Tory leadership contest that has been bubbling under for months is now starting.

It’s a two-stage process. The first sees votes among Conservative MPs designed to whittle the contenders down to just two front-runners. The second stage sees the party’s grassroots members choose between them in a postal ballot.

In other words, it is members of the public – those who pay £25 a year to join the Conservative Party – who get the final say on who the next prime minister is. There will not be a general election because the party is already in power.

So, who are its members and what do they think on key issues, not least of course Brexit?


We don’t know exactly how many Conservative Party members there are because – unlike the UK’s other parties – the Conservatives don’t regularly release the figures.

The last time they did so was back in March 2018, when they put the figure at 124,000.

That’s larger than some of the more pessimistic guesstimates, but way down on the peak of nearly three million that the party boasted in the early 1950s.

Membership plunged after that before levelling off at around one million in the 1970s and 1980s, since when it has been dropping almost inexorably.

One thing we can be sure of, however, is that the Tories have far fewer members than the Labour Party.

Even if we assume that Labour’s membership has fallen from the late 2017 peak of more than 550,000, it still has a huge advantage over the Conservatives when it comes to campaigning on the ground.

Right now, however, none of that matters as much as the fact that those 100,000 or so rank-and-file members of the Conservative Party have a crucial role.

They are going to be choosing the next prime minister of a country of over 65 million people – something which has never happened before.

Most members of most parties in the UK are pretty middle-class.

But Conservative Party members are the most middle-class of all: some 86% of them fall into the ABC1 category used by market researchers to describe the top social grade.


Around a quarter of them are, or were, self-employed and nearly half of them work, or used to, in the private sector.

Nearly four out of 10 put their annual income at over £30,000, and one in 20 put it at over £100,000. As such, Tory members are considerably better-off than most voters and, indeed, the members of other parties.

On the other hand, the fact that 97% of Conservative Party members are white doesn’t do much to distinguish them from their counterparts in other parties.

It does inevitably mean, however, that ethnic minorities, who make up well over 10% of British people, are heavily under-represented in the Tory rank and file.

So, too, are women. Other parties – notably Labour and the Greens, but also the SNP – now come close to gender balance, but seven out of 10 Conservative members are male.


Tory members are also older than the members of most other parties. True, their average age may “only” be 57, but this disguises the fact that four out of 10 are over 65.

They are concentrated in the southern half of the country. Nearly 60% of Tory members live in Eastern England, London, the South East and the South West.

So much for demography and geography. What about ideology?

Well, not surprisingly, Tory Party members are more right-wing than the population as a whole.

On a scale where zero represents very left-wing and 10 very right-wing, the average voter places themselves at the centre point. The average Conservative Party member places themselves at 7.6.

Certainly, grassroots Tories are socially conservative.

Three quarters of them believe, for instance, that young people today don’t have enough respect for traditional values. Nearly six out of 10 support the death penalty.

They are also conventionally right-wing on some aspects of economic policy.

For example, only 15% of them believe that government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well-off.

But on other issues they hold views that may be more unexpected.

A third of Tory rank-and-file members believe that ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth and that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor.

About half believe that big business takes advantage of ordinary people.

Interestingly, they have also cooled on austerity. In the summer of 2015, some 55% said government spending cuts hadn’t gone far enough, but two years later that had fallen to 28%.

What Tory members haven’t cooled on, however, is Brexit.

Indeed, since we started tracking them in 2015, they’ve hardened their position.

It is clear that they are not supporters of the deal negotiated by their outgoing leader.

In fact, it is now the case that fully two-thirds of them back a no-deal Brexit – an outcome supported by only a quarter of voters as a whole.

Nor are they in the least bit keen on the idea of letting the public have another say on the UK’s EU membership.

Some 84% of them oppose the idea of a new referendum on the issue.

In short, the grassroots aren’t simply sceptical on Europe; they can’t wait to leave, whatever that might take.

This, then, is the Conservative Party electorate.

And those MPs hoping to succeed Mrs May will need to pitch their promises accordingly.

Originally published at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48395211  NB The BBC has exclusive publication rights: commercial re-use of this post is therefore prohibited.

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