‘Greens can thrive as a party on the margins’, Times, 31 May 2017

The Greens are clearly the most left-leaning of all the parties that won significant support in 2015. Whether they can repeat their performance then (3.8 per cent and one million votes) is a moot point but even if they end up down, they won’t end up out.

On the upside, the Greens are this year led by a more high-profile and more gifted politician in Caroline Lucas, occupier of the party’s only Westminster seat, Brighton Pavilion – a seat it should hold onto.

On the downside, the lack of a full-blown, televised leaders’ debate this time round will mean less visibility.

Many of those who supported the party last time round may vote Labour this time because, as so-called watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) they are as much driven by left liberalism as they are environmental concerns.

The Lib Dems may also have lost at least a little of the toxicity they picked up by going into coalition with the Tories last time, meaning they may pick up some of the so-called mangoes (green on the outside, orange on the inside) who deserted Nick Clegg in 2015.

However, while the Greens may lose votes (and are unlikely to gain additional seats) at this election, it will not make much difference to their prospects post-election.

They are, after all, used to being a small, marginalised party which can continue to function quite happily as the nation’s conscience. This is partly because of Ms Lucas and partly because the environment is a genuinely pressing problem and reluctantly acknowledged as such by most British voters.

In that sense, the party’s vote-share is largely, if not completely, irrelevant. Unless and until other parties adopt the Green Party’s radical agenda, which, given what they see as its deleterious consequences for economic growth and electoral popularity, is highly unlikely, then its niche will always be there. It may, considering the rise in the proportion of Britain’s population going into higher education, even expand over time.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/tim-bale-8l37pzmj6

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‘Four reasons why the Lib Dem fightback may fall flat’, Times, 30 May 2017

Tim Farron’s party had high hopes for this election, based on its claim to represent the fabled 48 per cent who voted to remain in the EU last summer and on the impressive increase in membership it has seen since then. But there are at least four things which look likely to stymie a Lib Dem fightback and an improvement on the 7.9 per cent and 2.4 million votes they got last time.

First, many of the 48 per cent voted for parties other than the Lib Dems in 2015 and are going to stick with those parties in spite of their respective stances on Brexit – good (Tories), bad (Greens and the SNP), or “it depends” (Labour).

Second, outside of the leafy suburbs of (southwest) London and a handful of university towns, the seats they lost in 2015 are in parts of (mainly southern) England where Leave won the day in the referendum.

Third, although some of the smell has worn off since 2015, they remain in bad odour with many “progressive” voters after their fateful (and some would say fatally misguided) decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives in May 2010.

Fourth and finally, their leader, Tim Farron, whatever his intrinsic merits, doesn’t rate with (and often doesn’t even impinge on the consciousness of) the great British public.

Don’t be surprised, then, to see the Lib Dems holding a leadership contest in the medium (if not the short) term, although it is difficult to see any candidate on the horizon who would do markedly better than the incumbent.

Sir Vince Cable may have a crack, although only if he’s returned to parliament in June. Who knows, his recent observation that “politics after the election may be more interesting than before it” may have been an oblique reference to this.

Likewise, Norman Lamb, who lost out to Farron last time round. Whether either of them, or indeed anyone else, can realistically hope to accelerate what only time (and possibly a catastrophically bad Brexit) can heal is less than certain.

The Lib Dems, like the Greens, are used to surviving in the wilderness; they still have a relatively strong base in local government.

They do not seem, then, to be facing a threat which could be accurately be labelled “existential” – unless, of course, the Labour Party splits, giving rise to a Macron-style party of the radical centre. But that, as they say, is another story . . .

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/lib-dem-fightback-may-fall-flat-kqcl0rgdj

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‘Ukip seems to be facing a pretty bleak future’, Times, 1 June 2017

Theresa May isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but she has been extraordinarily successful in winning over the support of many of the nearly four million people (12.6 per cent of the electorate) who voted for the populist radical right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) back in 2015.

Brexit, border control, grammar schools, “strong and stable” leadership, support for ordinary working people, dollops of common sense, and the merest dash of criticism of big business. You name it, the prime minister has supplied it, and the response – especially now Nigel Farage seems finally to have left the building – has been everything she could have hoped for and more.

In contrast, Ukip’s latest leader, Paul Nuttall, is seen by his critics (both within and out the party) as a hapless, hopeless character.

And if he cannot improve on the party’s dire local election performance and its current opinion poll ratings, his position must surely be under threat post-election – or it would be if there were anyone serious willing and able (and, indeed, brave enough) to take over.

As a result, Ukip seems to be facing a pretty bleak future – presuming it has a future at all. The party is reported to be haemorrhaging members as fast as it is haemorrhaging voters, and is widely thought to have severe financial problems now its biggest donors have shut their wallets.

That, and the fact that there will be no more EU money coming the party’s way after 2019, may well mean it will very soon no longer be a going concern, electorally or organisationally – or both.

Given, however, that Mrs May will almost certainly be unable (once again) to achieve a noticeable reduction in immigration, at least in the short term, and given that the cultural anxiety created by Britain becoming an ever more multicultural society is unlikely to go away, the country may still have room for an Islamophobic, English-nationalist party.

But unless it is led by someone skilled and charismatic enough to convince people that it is not the BNP Mark II, then that party will – like the BNP Mark I – be condemned to roam the radical right-wing fringes of the party system, where there are few votes and no seats.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tim-bale-h8272pflh

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‘After an enormous victory in local elections, should the Tories fear voter complacency in the General? No’, CityAM, 8 May 2017

If your team is 3-0 up at half-time, then you can be fairly confident that you’re going to pull off an easy win. But even so, you need to guard against complacency. Remember the 2005 Champions League final, when the mighty AC Milan, in exactly that position, allowed Liverpool to come back and, after extra time and penalties, win the trophy?

But if you’re 3-0 up with only a couple of minutes of added time left on the clock, then it’s a different ball game.

All you need to do is shut up shop, keep possession, and wait for the whistle. That’s the position Conservatives are in right now. The locals don’t constitute a sure-fire prediction of a Tory landslide on 8 June, but they do suggest that the huge poll lead they’ve built up over Labour is real. Sure, turnout might be low in a few weeks’ time, but that is unlikely to do Theresa May much harm. And she’s not the type, anyway, to leave anything to chance.

Originally published at: http://www.cityam.com/264176/after-enormous-victory-local-elections-should-tories-fear

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‘Britain’s Labour Party is seeing a flood of new members. That’s why it’s in such trouble.’, Washington Post, 10 May 2017

Whether you look at the opinion polls or at the beating it’s just taken in a slew of local elections, Britain’s Labour Party is in a lot of trouble. Theresa May, the country’s Conservative prime minister, called for an early general election next month. Her opponent, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, looks set to lead his party to a historic defeat. Labour might be thrashed so badly that, in order to find a parallel, we might have to look beyond the 1980s, when Labour was regularly trounced by Margaret Thatcher, to the 1930s, when it was reduced to an impotent rump.

 Here’s the puzzle. The same Labour Party that is careening toward electoral disaster on June 8 has enjoyed amazing success in bringing in new members. Hundreds of thousands of people have joined the party since 2015, five years after it was voted out of office after 13 years in government. This is all the more extraordinary given a general trend of declining membership among European political parties.

So how can a party that is doing so well in adding to its membership be doing so badly in the polls? The answer is that attracting more members may be a curse rather than a blessing.

Here’s how Labour has grown

Last summer, Labour boasted around 550,000 members. It has lost some since but is around half a million strong. Many people joined to support Corbyn, the veteran leftist who caught everyone by surprise in the 2015 leadership contest and, with the support of even more new members, beat off a leadership challenge in 2016.

This is a big contrast with the Conservatives. Last time they provided us with a figure of their membership — something British parties aren’t obliged to do and prefer not to do unless their membership seems to be growing — they had around 140,000.

Political scientists aren’t sure that having more members helps parties win elections. The “ground game” – party activities on the ground, which often rely on party volunteers — might make a difference in districts where parties are evenly matched. But money may matter as much, if not more than members, especially as parties seem to be relying more and more on carefully targeted direct mail and digital advertising. Moreover, as we have recently shown, parties don’t always need to rely on members, as large numbers of people who aren’t paid-up members may often lend a hand come election time.

There may be another possibility — under some circumstances members, rather than being an asset to their party, may actually be a liability. Could membership growth and electoral decline have something to do with each other? This may help explain Labour’s current dilemma.

Labour party members look very different to average British voters

Labour Party members have probably always been further to the liberal left than the average British voter. Our research suggests that this is even more the case for those who joined the party after the 2015 general election. This matters because Labour, like many left-of-center parties, believes in intraparty democracy. Policy is set through a complex process involving a whole host of stakeholders (including the parliamentary party and affiliated trade unions). But ordinary party members have a much bigger say in deciding who will represent the party as general election candidates vying to become members of parliament (MPs).

This means that over time, Labour’s grass-roots activists can select candidates in their own image, potentially altering the composition of the parliamentary party (the PLP). That’s important, not just because it determines who gets to sell Labour’s policies to the public at election time but because, under the party’s rules, anyone who wants to stand for its leadership has to be nominated by a certain proportion of MPs to become a candidate that people can vote for.

But it’s once the list of candidates for Labour leader is finalized that the party’s ordinary members really do exercise power. Following changes put in place by Labour’s previous leader, Ed Miliband, it operates a full-blown “one-member-one-vote system,” which also, incidentally, gives a vote to “registered supporters” who pay a reduced fee.

How Jeremy Corbyn became Labour’s leader

It was this system which, to the horror of the bulk of Labour MPs, led to Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader back in 2015. When a bunch of them (some of whom later cursed themselves for what they did) agreed to nominate him to “widen the debate” in a nod to the party’s left-wing membership, they failed to foresee the risk they were running. By telling that membership what it wanted to hear, and by attracting new members into the party, Corbyn won the contest. The majority of MPs proceeded to vote no confidence in his leadership.  But, because he was the incumbent and therefore didn’t require their nominations, they could not exclude him from a second contest which took place in 2016 — a contest he won with an even bigger majority from an even bigger membership.

Corbyn’s views and demeanor have made him the least popular politician to have led the Labour Party since opinion polls begun. Even in a parliamentary rather than a presidential system, people look to leaders when they decide whom to vote for, creating big problems for the Labour Party’s electoral appeal.

 Corbyn’s leadership is not the only problem

Labour’s problems are go much deeper than a leader who is adored by many party members but derided by many voters. As a superb new book discusses, they also face a seemingly inexorable decline in working class support.

Even so, Labour is in the kind of trouble it’s in at least partly because of the members it’s got. These members are middle class and well-educated, largely unworried about immigration, in favor of high taxes and big government, and still seemingly supportive of a leader who shares their values.

Corbyn unsurprisingly sees Labour’s large membership as a solution not a problem.  Grass roots left-wingers responded to Labour’s disastrous performance in last week’s local elections by claiming their sheer numbers and sheer enthusiasm would help turn things around and deliver victory for Labour on June 8. Their theory, then, will be tested very soon — and possibly to destruction.

Originally published at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/05/10/britains-labour-party-is-seeing-a-flood-of-new-members-thats-why-its-in-such-trouble/

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‘What matters for Labour is not the general election but what happens next’, New Statesman, 19 May 2017

A handful of recent polls suggest Labour is doing better than many expected at the start of the campaign.  Whatever the reason, though, the gap between it and the Conservatives is still a yawning one.  Bluntly, it remains the case that this election is not about whether Labour is going to lose, it’s about how badly.

What matters for Labour, then, is what happens next and that depends in part on how many parliamentary seats the party ends up with on June 9th.

Clearly, judging from its tax, spend, and nationalise manifesto, and from the study made of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign itinerary by the BBC’s Chris Cook, the leadership is hoping not so much to win over undecided voters as to mobilize its base sufficient to match or even surpass Ed Miliband’s 30.4% of the vote in 2015.

But while that might allow Corbyn and co. to mount a rhetorical argument in favour of keeping him in place, it’s unlikely to be enough (owing to the number of Labour-held marginals that will inevitably fall to a resurgent Conservative Party) to stop Labour dropping below two hundred seats.  And if their plan doesn’t work, and Labour’s vote share ends up somewhere in the mid- to late-20s, then the party could emerge from the election holding just a quarter of the available seats in the Commons.

Whatever happens, Corbyn will have to decide whether, like some of his predecessors, to stay on or, as Ed Miliband did in 2015, to accept responsibility for the defeat and resign immediately.  If he stays on, it will presumably be not so much because he plans to be in the job for another full parliamentary term but because he hopes his being there will improve the chances of his being replaced sooner or later by another MP from the radical wing of the party – something made more likely, though by no means certain, should the PLP’s left manage to change Labour’s rules to reduce the number of nominations required to make it onto the ballot paper sent out to its largely left-liberal membership.

There are, however, two problems with this strategy. First, the left is not as good at grassroots organizing as many assume, and there is no guarantee that they will achieve that rule change at Labour’s autumn conference. Second, Corbyn could well face a challenge before then anyway.  And if he is challenged over the summer (names bandied around include Yvette Cooper, Chukka Umunna and possibly Dan Jarvis), then no-one should take it as given that he will win – not after a damaging election defeat and a possible change of heart on the part of those trade union leaders whose ideology does not trump their concerns about throwing their members’ good money after bad.

If, on the other hand, Corbyn resigns immediately after the party’s defeat, it will be because left-wing Labour MPs reckon they can count on 15% of their colleagues in the PLP and the party’s delegation to the European Parliament to nominate one of their number for the leadership.  Calculations vary, but this is by no means impossible, not least because Corbynite MPs are slightly more likely to escape losing their seats than the non-Corbynite MPs who will continue to make up the bulk of the PLP after the general election.  Should they achieve their aim, Labour’s fate will again be the hands of its membership.

Again, though, we should be careful not to assume the party’s grassroots will automatically opt for another left-winger – a Corbyn clone or mini-me. Members value their principles, and many will doubtless buy into the argument that their hero Jeremy was traduced by the media and stabbed in the back by his ‘Blairite’ parliamentary colleagues. But research suggests that party members also care about power as well as protest, so they won’t necessarily relish the prospect of a further five (and probably ten) years out of office.

That said, if Labour members do vote for Corbyn or another out-and-out seventies-style socialist (as opposed to a Neil Kinnock-style ‘soft-left’, compromise candidate), then we need to contemplate the possibility (if not yet the probability) that the party could suffer a potentially fatal split as the moderate majority of the PLP looks for a way out of what by then will look to many of them like a burning building.

Inertia, of course, is a much-underestimated force, and behavioural psychology teaches us that loss-aversion is just as powerful.  On the other hand, so, too, is the feeling that sometimes you have nothing left to lose.  If that applies to a substantial number of Labour MPs, then look past the election for a moment because this summer, like last summer, could be a truly historic one for British politics.

Originally published at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/june2017/2017/05/what-matters-labour-not-general-election-what-happens-next

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‘Theresa May announces dramatic re-think on “dementia tax”‘, 22 May 2017

In a hastily-scheduled (and totally-hypothetical) media appearance, Mrs May said the following:

‘Governing is about making hard choices but it’s also about listening and, wherever possible, about building a national consensus.

In the last few days it’s become clear to me that people all over the country are worried about the policy floated in the Conservative manifesto on social care.

I believe I have a duty, as a responsible and responsive Prime Minister, to listen and to reflect those concerns.

If that means re-thinking a policy floated in a manifesto, then I think it’s important that a politician – especially one running for the top job in British politics – should be big enough to do that.

After all, no-one should think they have a monopoly on wisdom – especially not on a question as vital to all of us as social care.

That’s why today I’m announcing that, if I am fortunate enough to be re-elected as your Prime Minister, that I will call for a Royal Commission on Social Care so that we can achieve a genuine, cross-party, practical and affordable solution to one of the toughest issues facing every single family in the UK – now and in the future.

I realise that, in doing this, I will be accused of a U-turn, of having made a mistake. My reply to that is that it is always better in politics, as in life, to pause for thought rather than plough on regardless, heedless of genuine concern on the part of the people and the country which I aspire to lead.

Yes, governing is about choosing.  But it’s also about listening.  And that’s what, on social care and how we pay for it as a nation, I, as your Prime Minister, have decided to do.’

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