‘Boris’s North Shropshire nightmare is eerily reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s Eastbourne defeat’, Telegraph, 17 December 2021.

Margaret Thatcher was no stranger to by-election defeats. But she’d got used to taking them in her stride. Between 1979 and 1987, her Conservative government lost seven of them – six to candidates representing either the Liberals or the SDP, the two parties that went on to form the Liberal Democrats. But that didn’t stop the Tories winning huge majorities in 1983 and 1987.

The loss of the Eastbourne by-election in October 1990, however, proved fatal. Like the defeat in North Shropshire , its impact had much to do with the fact that it was considered a rock-solid Conservative seat. Indeed, it had been held by the party, with only one interruption (occasioned by the Liberal landslide of 1906) since its creation in 1885.

Moreover, the defeat was all the more spectacular because it was so unexpected. Only a week before polling day, the prime minister, speaking at the Tory Party Conference had mocked the Lib Dems (who’d finished a humiliating fourth behind the Greens at the European Parliament elections the year before) by comparing their avian avatar to Monty Python’s dead parrot.

Thatcher’s confidence was in some ways understandable. The contest had been brought about by the IRA’s assassination of the popular sitting MP, Ian Gow – one of Thatcher’s closest confidantes. Surely the voters of the small seaside town, who had returned Gow with a 17,000 majority (equating to 60 per cent of the vote) just three years previously, would do their patriotic duty and replace him with another Tory?

That they decided not to was down to a number of factors – some of which provide a marked contrast with those that led up to yesterday’s stunning result.

First and foremost was the fact that the government had become deeply unpopular as the economy ran into trouble, as its controversial poll tax began to bite, and as Cabinet arguments over Europe raged. Indeed, by October 1990 it had been behind in the opinion polls for well over a year, with Labour regularly recording the kind of double-digit leads that Keir Starmer and his colleagues have so far only dared to dream about.

But then there was the campaign itself. For one thing, the Conservatives made the mistake of picking as their candidate, Richard Hickmet, who had been ousted by the voters of faraway Glanford and Scunthorpe after four years as their MP between 1983 and 1987. If he hadn’t been good enough for them, locals reasoned, why was he good enough for what the town’s tourism-inspired postmark labelled ‘The Suntrap and Showplace of the South’? Nor, it turned out, were they too impressed by a Tory campaign that, understandably shying away from defending the government’s record, seemed to hint that voting for anyone other than the Conservative candidate would provide succour to Republican terrorists.

For another, the Lib Dems may have looked down but they were actually far from out, not least because the party (and its Liberal predecessor) had for a long time been well-represented at local level. That gave it a base from which to fight one of its classic, hyperlocal, ‘pavement politics’ by-election battles, masterminded – not for the first or last time – by its campaign guru, Chris Rennard. Added to that, the Lib Dems’ leader, former soldier Paddy Ashdown, was by then beginning to find his feet on the national stage.

The result, when it came, was quite something. The Lib Dem’s candidate, David Bellotti, won just over half of the vote and was returned with a majority of 4,550 on a swing of 20 per cent – nowhere near the swing recorded last night but still enough to shock Tory MPs, not least the 160 or so sitting for constituencies where the Lib Dems were presumed to be in second place whose majorities were smaller than Ian Gow’s had been.

Had the party only just begun to lose its opinion poll lead to Labour, as is the case now , perhaps the fear of losing their seats might not have been enough to panic so many of Thatcher’s troops. But their unhappiness with her leadership had been growing for some time, and they had given up hope of her changing her style or her policy stances. Maggie, they felt, was finally past her sell-by date. Can the same be said of Boris?

Originally published at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/12/17/boris-north-shropshire-nightmare-eerily-reminiscent-margaret/

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‘Your starter for 10: Would the Tories be better off without Boris Johnson?’, Open Democracy, 14 December 2021.

Facing a rebellion over new COVID restrictions, a potential inquiry into undeclared donations from a Tory peer to pay for improvements to the prime minister’s Downing Street flat and revelations over lockdown-breaking Christmas quizzes and parties, the season of goodwill appears to have bypassed Number 10.

The Tories also face the embarrassment of losing the near 23,000 majority in Thursday’s North Shropshire by-election, a seat the party has held for all but two years since 1832.

But while it’s tempting to blame most – maybe even all – of the party’s current problems on Boris Johnson himself, simply ditching its current leader and replacing him with any of the current frontrunners won’t necessarily see an uptick in the party’s fortunes. Indeed, it might even make things worse.

Johnson, believe it or not, has never been a particularly popular prime minister – not overall anyway. In fact, as research for our recently published book, ‘The British General Election of 2019’, makes clear, his predecessor, Theresa May, was more popular with the electorate as a whole during the disastrous 2017 campaign than he was in the weeks leading up to the Tory triumph two and a half years later.

What Johnson had over May, however, was that many of those voters who did like him, really, really liked him. That, and the fact that many of them were precisely the kind of voters that the Conservatives needed to earn them a comfortable majority – white, not particularly well educated, patriotic Leave supporters, prepared to give his government the benefit of the doubt when it came to ending austerity.

We need to be careful, however, not to allow the prime minister’s outsize personality to blind us to the fact that support for his party in 2019 was, for most voters outside its core support (which runs at around 30%), pretty conditional. Brexit by all means, but with a purpose – that purpose being to allow the government to get on with delivering on rescuing the public services that were struggling badly. Forget bread and circuses. Think bread and butter.

Now, obviously, the Tory manifesto didn’t go too far. It made a few eye-catching headline commitments to spend more on health and policing in particular, but the then chancellor, Sajid Javid, nevertheless managed to persuade Johnson that that needn’t mean junking the government’s ‘fiscal rules’. The economy was seemingly in safe hands – an important factor (along with the fear that Jeremy Corbyn was an indecisive and incompetent spendthrift) in helping to persuade Conservatively inclined Remainers not to desert to the Lib Democrats.

That said, there was no sense in which the manifesto built on the blueprint for a dynamic, deregulated economy laid down a few years ago by the ambitious co-authors of ‘Britannia Unchained’, two of whom (Dominic Raab and Liz Truss) would like to think they have a chance of succeeding Johnson and one of whom (Truss) actually does.

And there’s the rub. Truss’s problem is not so much that she’s taken to performing something of a Thatcher tribute act by riding around in a tank and talking tough on Russia. (Even if some of her colleagues might see it as trying just a little too hard, it probably tickles the tummy of those ordinary party members who are either old enough to remember Maggie Thatcher or else young enough to worship her as some kind of icon.) No, her problem is that her kind of Conservatism – revolving around the supposedly eternal verities of what political scientist Andrew Gamble famously labelled “the free economy and the strong state” – might well mobilise the base. But in so doing it would risk sending many of the voters won (not least in the so-called Red Wall) skedaddling back to a Labour Party that seems, at long last, to be coming to its senses.

The same almost certainly goes for chancellor Rishi Sunak – surely still the front-frontrunner. Sure, he’s associated in the public’s mind with spending squillions, despite doing his best to reassure his party that ‘COVID made me do it’. And that certainly beats swanning around the world doing trade deals most people haven’t heard of. It might also mean that he’s in a better position than his main rival to downplay his ideological drives. However, if Sunak runs for party leader, he won’t find it quite so easy to hide.

One potential advantage Sunak has over Truss, however, is that he comes from an ethnic minority and may therefore help the Tories address their long-term problem with the UK’s people of colour – although whether his appeal will go beyond the Indian diaspora, which is one of the few minority groups already increasingly inclined to vote Conservative, who knows?

Neither of the two frontrunners, though, looks set to do much – in both senses of that phrase – for younger (and, to some extent, better educated) voters, with whom the Tories have completely lost touch over the past decade or so.

Choosing to use National Insurance rises to pay for desperately needed funding for the NHS and social care, along with talk of adding to the burden of those with student loans, won’t help Sunak in this respect. And few millennials, paying through the nose in rent without too much hope of getting on the housing ladder until their parents pop their proverbials, are likely to appreciate Truss’s characterisation of them as “airbnb-ing, deliveroo-eating, uber-riding #freedomfighters!”

So, although the Tory party is famously, as historian John Ramsden once put it, “an autocracy tempered by assassination”, its current ‘world king’ may have some life left in him yet. And even if what is now no more than a trickle of letters to the chair of the 1922 Committee calling for a confidence vote in Boris Johnson eventually becomes a flood, Conservative MPs might want to pause a while and recall Hilaire Belloc’s warning to “always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse”.

Originally published at https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/your-starter-for-10-would-the-tories-be-better-off-without-boris-johnson/

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‘Boris Johnson’s woes are multiplied if he cannot “unite the right”‘, Financial Times, 11 December 2021.

Boris Johnson might be in a whole heap of trouble right now but two years ago almost to the day he was master of all he surveyed. That December, he achieved an overall majority of 80 seats on a vote share of 43.6 per cent — barely six months after the Conservatives had crashed to an all-time low of 8.8 per cent in elections to the European Parliament, forced on Theresa May by her failure to leave the EU.

Few realised at the time — and maybe don’t even now — that the Tory majority could have been even bigger. Our research for the latest in the long-running Nuffield studies of British general elections suggests that, by attracting the support of former Labour and Ukip voters who might otherwise have backed him, Nigel Farage’s Brexit party may have saved up to 25 Labour MPs, denying Johnson a landslide majority of about 130 seats.

Intriguingly, the same research suggests that, owing to the overall swing to the Conservatives in most seats, Farage’s decision in 2019 not to stand candidates in Tory-held constituencies had far less impact.

All this points to an unnerving truth for the Conservative party — namely that, although one of the keys to its victory was the ability to “unite the right” with a promise to “Get Brexit Done”, it nevertheless remains vulnerable to a populist radical right insurgency.

These days, that insurgency comes in the guise of Reform UK — the successor to the Brexit party led by Farage’s former right-hand man, Richard Tice. As with the Brexit party (and Ukip before it) the Tories’ fear is not that their latest rightwing rival will take seats off them. But by attracting support both from those who would normally vote Tory and those who might do so for other reasons, it might help Labour and the Liberal Democrats win them instead.

That is a distinct possibility in the upcoming by-election in North Shropshire occasioned by the resignation of Owen Paterson — now just one episode in a spate of scandals that, along with rising concern about immigration in the Channel and antipathy towards anti-Covid measures, may trigger a significant anti-Tory protest vote.

Paterson didn’t have to worry in 2019 about the Brexit party denting what was, in any case, a massive Conservative majority. But rewind to the 2015 election and you find Ukip coming from practically nowhere to take nearly 18 per cent of the vote.

In some ways, that should come as no surprise. After all, North Shropshire is a solidly pro-Brexit seat, with 60 per cent of its voters estimated to have voted Leave in 2016.

True, it makes it into the 200 most affluent parliamentary constituencies in the UK and boasts relatively few of the “left behind” supporters of the radical right. But Remain’s defeat in the EU referendum owed every bit as much to the comfortable Leavers of middle England as to their less well-heeled counterparts in more deprived areas. And in contrast with some European countries, voting for radical rightwing populists in the UK is a pastime mainly for the elderly or middle aged, of which North Shropshire has more than its fair share.

All this makes the seat a test bed of sorts for the radical right. But in the end, Reform UK can only help cost the Conservatives the seat in the event of a huge swing to either the Lib Dems or Labour. That’s not, of course, unprecedented and, after June’s shock result in Chesham and Amersham, anything is possible. But it does rely on tactically-inclined voters in North Shropshire knowing which of the two is really best placed to give Johnson a bloody nose — something that, thanks to the apparent reluctance of either party to give the other a clear run, doesn’t seem, so far anyway, to be as obvious as many advocates of a tacit “progressive alliance” hoped it might be.

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/bf2a9b96-e138-4953-89ef-30feae57297e

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‘Riding the populist wave: the UK Conservatives and the constitution’, Constitution Unit Blog, 10 December 2021.

A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with costochondritis – a minor and surprisingly common condition involving the cartilage that joins your ribs to your sternum but which produces chest pains that make some people suffering from it worry they’re having a heart attack.

The standard treatment is to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. For me this presented a bit of a dilemma. Like many other people, I don’t tolerate ibuprofen: it irritates my gastrointestinal tract – something I’m wise to avoid doing because I also suffer from something called Barrett’s oesophagus, which, if you’re unlucky, can turn cancerous. So, on the assumption that the costochondritis would eventually resolve itself, and given the fact that the discomfort involved was irritating but far from overwhelming, I decided just to put up with it.

I’m sharing this bit of my recent medical history not because I particularly enjoy talking about it but because it produces a useful analogy for a question that I want to ask – namely, are politicians on the mainstream right so concerned about countering the rise of populist radical right parties that they end up proposing things that risk doing more harm to society and to the polity than if they were simply to admit that those parties are now a normal rather than a pathological feature of contemporary politics?

The background to this is the book I’ve recently co-edited with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, called Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis. We look at how mainstream right parties – which aren’t written about anywhere near as much as their counterparts on the left or, indeed, on the far right – have handled (or in some cases failed to handle) some of the challenges that they’ve been facing for the last three or four decades. Over that time, they’ve suffered significant electoral decline, although, as we show in the book, the extent of that decline varies not just between countries but between party families, with Christian democratic parties suffering more than conservative parties, which, in turn, have suffered more than (market) liberal parties, which have actually managed to hold pretty steady.

We argue that the difficulties they’ve faced are partly down to their having to cope with something of a double whammy.

On the one hand, they’ve had to deal with what the late Ronald Inglehart called the ‘Silent Revolution’ – the gradual spread of progressive, liberal and postmaterialist values which are particularly attractive to younger and well-educated voters but which are inimical to some of the nationalistic and socially-conservative values held and advocated by mainstream right politicians.

On the other hand, they’ve had to deal with the backlash against all that – what Piero Ignazi has called the ‘Silent Counter-Revolution’ – that has helped fuel the rise of populist radical right parties which, because they espouse (albeit in more extreme fashion) some of the values espoused by their more centrist counterparts, may well tempt some of those who traditionally vote for the latter to jump ship.

In the book, which contains country case studies (including one of the British Conservative Party by Leeds University’s Richard Hayton), as well as a couple of chapters looking at both the demand side and supply side of European party politics, we focus on how all this has impacted on the stances adopted by the mainstream right on welfare policy, on European integration, on moral/social issues and on immigration. And it’s on the latter two where the impact is most obvious, with mainstream right parties becoming more socially liberal in many ways but not when it comes to immigration, where they’ve become noticeably more restrictive, even hard-line.

But the book is also a jumping-off point for talking about the broader strategic responses to the rise of the populist radical right by its mainstream counterpart. Essentially, these boil down to four approaches.

The first is to resist it by huddling together with other mainstream parties, to try and freeze out populist challenger parties by refusing to have anything to do with them, even if that means (as in Germany, at least at the federal level) going into or staying in ideologically uncongenial coalitions.

The second approach – the most popular one across Western Europe, particularly on migration and multiculturalism – is for mainstream right parties (and some on the left as well) to adapt to, and even to some extent to adopt, the policies of the populist radical right. We are seeing this in real-time in France but we’ve seen it almost everywhere.

The third approach taken by mainstream right parties is to actually get together in government with populist radical right parties – either in full-blown coalition or using them as support parties for minority mainstream administrations. This has happened in AustriaDenmark and the Netherlands.

The fourth option is for mainstream right parties to, in effect, become a kind of ersatz populist radical right party, adopting not just its policies, but its rhetoric and its ‘strongman’ approach to governing – so much so that observers begin to voice concerns about the erosion of constitutional and political norms we might (perhaps complacently) have taken for granted. The most extreme contemporary examples of this kind of ‘democratic backsliding’ on the part of parties previously considered (rightly or wrongly) to be part of the mainstream right are the United States and, in Europe, Hungary and Poland.

Arguably the UK, too, is heading in that direction, governed by a Conservative Party so determined to ‘unite the right’ and supress support for a challenger party like UKIP, the Brexit Party, and ReformUK that it risks transmogrifying into a populist radical right party.

The ‘charge sheet’ is a long one:

Taken together, these ideas and measures raise the possibility that the UK may indeed become another example of democratic backsliding, as suggested in a recent Constitution Unit blogpost, in which the authors point out the part played in the process by polarisation and a legislature rendered acquiescent by an overwhelming government majority – both of which clearly apply in the UK case.

In the government’s defence, of course, one can argue that not all of these ideas have come to fruition and that we haven’t had enough time to allow us to come to a judgement as to whether, in sum, they constitute a ‘pattern of behaviour’.

The problem with this argument, of course, is that – much like the situation with COVID-19 – if you wait to act until you’re absolutely certain something’s wrong, then you’re bound to be too late to do much about it. There are (as books by Levitsky and Ziblatt, and Runciman recount) so many examples from history and from around the world which remind us that democracy all too often ends not with a bang but a whimper.

All of which brings us back to the question raised by the analogy with which I began and which can be traced right back to Virgil’s Aeneid: if the only way to effectively stymie the rise of the populist radical right is to ape it, and in so doing undermine and erode liberal democracy, at what point does the cure become worse than the disease?

Originally published at https://constitution-unit.com/2021/12/10/riding-the-populist-wave-the-uk-conservatives-and-the-constitution/

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‘To regain lost ground at the next election, Labour will need to convince voters that it can deliver greater social justice and security without risking the economy’, LSE British Politics and Policy, 8 November 2021 (with Paul Webb).

As many opinion polls have attested to over the past year, Keir Starmer has found it difficult to make his mark as Leader of the Opposition. Notwithstanding the twin economic impacts of Brexit and the pandemic, Labour continues to lag stubbornly behind the Conservatives in most polls, while Boris Johnson still holds an advantage over Starmer on the question of who would make the best prime minister. While the Conservatives do not seem to be much loved by the average British voter, Labour does not yet seem to be trusted to govern, especially when it comes to managing the economy.

This is not to suggest that Labour has made no headway at all under Starmer. In purely electoral terms, it has to be said that the change of leadership alone places Labour in a stronger place with voters, even if he has not yet won them over. Starmer’s willingness to tackle internal party issues such as the anti-semitism crisis and procedures for electing leaders might have stoked a critical backlash from the party’s left-wing, but it may have done him no harm overall with voters to be seen to be tackling the Corbynite left.

Political scientists often cast the strategic game of party competition in terms of the ideological positioning of parties. From this perspective, Labour’s challenge since the electoral nadir of 2019 has very broadly been to shift its position so that is generally regarded by voters as less left-wing and socially liberal. A perceived or actual shift to the right on matters of taxation, spending, and economic management is likely to be especially significant. As we have shown in our book The Modern British Party System, while Labour occupied similarly liberal territory to the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens in 2019, it also shifted significantly further to the left than any other party (see Figure 1, compiled from data found here).

This is where Labour was most obviously out on a limb, with manifesto commitments to increase NHS spending by 4.3%, eliminate NHS outsourcing to the private sector, nationalise rail, mail, water and energy companies, raise the minimum wage, stop pension age increases, compensate Women Against State Pension Inequality, introduce a National Care Service (for England), increase education spending, abolish tuition fees, and build 100,000 new council homes per year. As we can see from Figure 2, this constitutes an even more left-wing Labour manifesto than the notorious ‘longest suicide note in history’ of 1983, which produced an almost equally disastrous electoral performance for the party.

This is especially important since the ‘left-authoritarian’ quadrant located to the south-west of Figures 1 and 2 is the richest in terms of the electoral market: we estimate that some 60% of voters can be identified as locating somewhere in this sector of the market (nearly three times as many as in any other sector) – and only the Conservatives, with their well-resourced polling operation, seemed to grasp this in 2019. It is also obvious from Figure 2 that Labour was situated firmly in this quadrant when winning elections from 1997-2005.

The message for Labour is reinforced by evidence suggesting that those voters who deserted to the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in 2019 (who constituted the party’s biggest net losses) were notably more right-wing on questions of political economy. So, while much has been made of the social liberal-authoritarian dimension of British politics in recent years – not unreasonably, given that it is closely connected with the issue of Brexit which has plainly generated a major electoral realignment – the left-right dimension probably remains key to Labour’s hopes.

True, under Keir Starmer Labour has sought to drape itself more obviously in the union flag and play the ‘patriotism’ card, but the Labour leader has also made it clear that he does not wish to the revive the debate about Brexit any more than absolutely necessary, and it is probably wise to avoid engaging the Tories on ‘Culture War’ issues.

From Labour’s perspective, then, the prospects for regaining lost ground at the next general election seem more likely to depend on battles fought on the familiar territory of left-right politics. This makes even greater sense given the potential for growing material insecurity in the wake of a decade which has brought austerity and pandemic lockdowns. The trick will be to convince voters that Labour can deliver greater social justice and security without risking the economy. This is a challenge which will inevitably be complicated by the strategic manoeuvres of their opponents, of course. Under Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the rhetoric of ‘levelling-up’ and the hard economic facts of rising taxation, expenditure, and infrastructural spending imply a leftward movement by the Conservatives after 2019.

Seen in this light, policies recently announced by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves committing any future Labour government to balance the current expenditure budget, while out-investing the Tories on infrastructural investment, signal an attempt to reassure voters and businesses about the party’s economic competence – a rightward shift, as it were. However, in order to carve out a distinctive appeal to voters, Labour cannot and should not allow a reassuring emphasis on greater managerial credibility to crowd out a rather more inspiring narrative about fairness. Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, as well as positioning their parties in the sweet-spot between liberty and authority, left and right, did exactly that – Wilson in the 1960s and Blair in the 1990s.  So far, anyway, Starmer has yet to prove he is in their league.

Originally published at https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/labour-next-election/

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‘Boris Johnson wants net zero by 2050. Are his voters behind him?’, The Loop, 3 November 2021.

A UK referendum on its net-zero policy?

In the run-up to the COP26 summit in Glasgow, a group called CAR26 persuaded the Daily Telegraph – one of the UK’s best-selling, Conservative-supporting newspapers – to run a story on a recent poll it had commissioned. The poll revealed that four out of ten adults ‘support a national referendum to decide whether or not the UK pursues a Net Zero Carbon policy.’

This may, of course, turn out to be, as many suspect, an ‘astroturf’ campaign – one set up to look like a grassroots effort but in reality funded by special interests. But it is a reminder that there remains a significant portion of the Tory milieu who don’t accept climate change as real; or at least who don’t believe there’s much point in the UK trying to do much about it when big carbon emitters like China, Russia, India, Australia and Saudi Arabia don’t seem to want to bother.

Tory climate change sceptics?

Interestingly – indeed some would say rather bizarrely – CAR26 doesn’t seem to have asked (or at least permitted the publication of the responses to) the obvious next question, namely ‘If such a referendum were held, which way would you vote?’ Presumably, this was because the answers might not have made for quite such headline-grabbing reading for climate-change sceptics: at least some of the 42% of respondents who said they either tended to support or strongly supported a referendum on net zero would end up voting for rather than against the policy.

Liberal Democrat supporters, for example, are normally pretty keen on measures to tackle global warming. The fact that some 46% of them said they supported a net zero referendum (as opposed to 45% who did not) suggests that by no means all Brits backing a vote do so because they think climate change is nonsense or something no-one can do much about.

Still, it is noticeable that net support for a referendum is strongest among Conservative Party supporters (46 vs 33% opposed) but much weaker (39 vs 35%) among Labour supporters. It is also noticeable that those who voted to leave the EU in 2016 are considerably more supportive (47 vs 28%) than those who voted Remain (41 vs 39%).

To some extent, this will be tied up with the demographics of both Tory and Leave (pro-Brexit) voting – something that becomes obvious when you look at support for a net zero referendum among different age groups. There is a big contrast, for instance, between the enthusiasm shown for such a vote among those 65 and older (who support a referendum by a 4735 margin) and the relative lack of enthusiasm (the margin is 3527, with 37% saying don’t know) among those aged 1824.

It’s also possible, of course, that those who have been on the winning side in a referendum tend to think they’re a good thing, and vice versa. We know, too, that people’s support for referendums also tends to vary with how likely they think their opinion will be shared by the majority.

Notwithstanding all those caveats, however, there is good reason to think that some of the differences between the reactions to the idea of a net zero referendum among the supporters of different parties reflect differences in underlying values – values which are often linked to their partisan preferences.

Materialists vs postmaterialists

Those values can be summed up in all sorts of ways, but one of the most enduring is to differentiate between materialists and postmaterialists. The former prioritise (among other things) economic growth and security; the latter put more emphasis (again among other things) on the environment and solidarity with the developing world.

Materialism and postmaterialism in the UK

In our new book, The Modern British Party System, Paul Webb and I explore UK party politics using the tools of comparative politics. And we note that (as in many other Western liberal democracies) the balance in Britain is shifting toward postmaterialism, although we also emphasise that the majority of the population continue to display a mixed orientation. See Figure 1 above.

This, and the fact that some 41% of those classified as ‘mixed’ (and 44% of those classified as ‘materialist’) explicitly say they prioritise the economy over environmental protection are two reasons why the Johnson government (and its successors) will have to continue to work incredibly hard to persuade people of the necessity of sometimes expensive and disruptive change if the UK really is to reduce its emissions.

However, as we also note, there is an obvious connection between people’s value orientations and their choice of party  see Figure 2 below. All of which poses a dilemma for a Prime Minister with normally supportive newspapers nipping at his heels on net zero – especially if one of them, the Telegraph, is read by a third of ordinary Tory party members (as revealed by another recent book of ours, Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century, co-written with Monica Poletti).

Materialism, postmaterialism and party support

Vote Blue, no to Green?

The situation is by no means as simple as ‘Vote Blue, no to Green’. But Boris Johnson clearly needs to do a far better job than he has done so far to convince his very own Conservative supporters, both in the media and up and down the country, that net zero should be one of their top priorities, and not simply a ‘nice to have’.

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‘Macmillan’s many, many Chancellors’, Daily Telegraph, 30 October 2021.

Much as he might have liked to, Edmund Dell, a cabinet minister in Jim Callaghan’s Labour government, never came close to being appointed chancellor of the exchequer. But he did write what remains the best book ever written about the post-war occupants of that office and their relationships with the prime ministers at whose pleasure (which, all too often, turned swiftly to displeasure) they served.

Of Harold Macmillan, who, very unusually it must be said, moved straight from Number 11 to Number 10 when he replaced Anthony Eden as PM in 1957, Dell wrote that, in his six or so years in charge, he got through chancellors more rapidly than Henry VIII got through wives and “with even less satisfaction”.

Macmillan lost his first Downing Street neighbour after just a year, when Peter Thorneycroft resigned over the Cabinet’s failure to reign in public spending in order to combat rising inflation. Macmillan’s second chancellor, Derick Heathcoat-Amory, stepped down only two-and-a-half years later to be replaced by Selwyn Lloyd, whose pre-emptory dismissal in July 1962 became legendary, not so much on its own account but because it was one of seven spectacularly simultaneous Cabinet sackings in what was quickly dubbed “The Night of the Long Knives”.

To understand why Macmillan’s move earned such a sobriquet, one has to imagine Boris Johnson getting rid of the following in one fell swoop (for once, the cliché is entirely appropriate): Dominic Raab, Nadhim Zahawi, Ben Wallace, Alister Jack, Michael Gove, Oliver Dowden, and, of course, Rishi Sunak.

Amputation at such a scale would surely make last month’s relatively wide-ranging reshuffle look like keyhole surgery. Which raises the obvious question: why did “Supermac”, having won a 100-seat majority three years earlier, suddenly become ‘Mac the Knife’ – the premier of whom Jeremy Thorpe so marvellously quipped: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life”?

There is an easy answer and a more complicated one. On the face of it, Macmillan simply panicked: a string of bad by-elections culminating in the loss of Orpington, a safe Tory seat next to his own in Bromley, plus the fact that the press had got wind of his plans for a reshuffle in the autumn, persuaded him he had to act sooner rather than later in order to stop the rot.

But underpinning Macmillan’s decision was his dissatisfaction with a chancellor who’d delivered an unpopular budget just a few months earlier and who disagreed with him on the need to prioritise economic growth over spending restraint.

Yet, as Boris Johnson might well find if he were ever to essay something similar, be careful what you wish for. By appointing the less phlegmatic, more carefree (and careless) Reggie Maudling, Macmillan got his “dash for growth” – only to pile up more problems as a result. Within 15 months he’d resigned as a Prime Minister, pleading ill-health, and a year later Labour, after more than a decade in the wilderness, was back in power.

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‘The Tories will never change’, UnHerd, 27 October 2021.

To watch Rishi Sunak deliver his Budget, one could be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is a very different beast from its ‘age of austerity’ predecessor led by David Cameron and George Osborne. But, in reality, is the contrast so sharp? Isn’t what we’re seeing par for the course when it comes to a party which has always adapted to the spirit of the age?

The Conservatives can lay claim to be the world’s oldest and most successful political party precisely because, in order to hang on to power and prevent (or at least limit) any truly significant redistribution of power and wealth, they have always been prepared to mix and match policies in way that both appeals to a wide electorate and also makes pinning them down ideologically feel like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

Admittedly, at first glance, the impression of a party totally transformed is easy to run away with. After all, Cameron and Osborne, as well as insisting on balancing the books no matter what the cost to the nation’s deteriorating public services and rising poverty levels, were often portrayed as modernisers hell-bent on dragging the Tories kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Johnson on the other hand, whatever the cosmopolitan image he worked hard to create as Mayor of London, seems happy to cosplay the authoritarian populist — the leader of a party determined to engage in a ‘war on woke’, to defend the interests of businesses big and small, and to allow nationalism to trump his party’s traditional commitment to economic rationality.

But let’s look, first, a little closer at the Conservative Party under Cameron. Sure, it brought in equal marriage after it made it into government in 2010. But it had to rely on the votes of the opposition Labour Party to do so, since so many of its own MPs rejected the change. Similarly, while Cameron in opposition began by hugging huskies, he ended his time in Number Ten by demanding his colleagues “get rid of all the green crap” — meaning it was left to his unfortunate successor Theresa May to commit the country to net zero. Meanwhile, Cameron’s Conservatives also spent a great deal of time and effort both bringing in draconian policies (accompanied by equally draconian rhetoric) to try and crack down on immigration and badmouthing the European Union — all of which helped fuel the rise of UKIP and ultimately led to Cameron’s fateful decision to call the 2016 referendum.

As for austerity, there is no doubt that it was a reality after 2010 — but far more so for some parts of the state, and some people, than others. The NHS, as it may do now, escaped the bulk of the cuts foisted on so many other public services, while folk on pensions — unlike younger people and the poor — actually did relatively well, presumably because they constituted (and continue to constitute) such an important part of the Conservatives’ voter coalition. Admittedly, policing did suffer cuts, but that didn’t stop the party under Cameron continuing to call its main opponent ‘soft on crime’, as well as framing Labour as the party of immigrants, Europhiles, students, the chattering classes and supposedly work-shy welfare claimants.

So what about the party under Johnson? True, Sunak has raised rather than cut taxes, including corporation tax — a move which, notwithstanding reliefs on R&D and temporary cuts to high-street business rates, some pearl-clutching neoliberals will doubtless still insist on seeing as the very incarnation of Johnson’s characteristically unguarded (but also characteristically pretty meaningless) “Fuck Business!” remark. But few if any of those tax rises is remotely progressive, not least the increase in National Insurance which the party pretends will ‘fix social care’ (it won’t). Nor is there any serious suggestion of moving to tax wealth or property to anything like the extent that a serious rebalancing of the economy would require. The hike in the National Living Wage is, of course, welcome, although let’s not forget that it was George ‘austerity’ Osborne who invented the concept in the first place!

Meanwhile, Sunak rescinded his boost to welfare benefits prompted by the pandemic as soon as decently possible — a decision which, for those not in work, will not be compensated for by his eye-catching (and indeed welcome) reduction in Universal Credit’s taper rate. Nor is the Government providing anywhere near enough funding to help poorer pupils who missed so much school catch-up. The same arguably goes for climate change policy, where, especially after the Government’s policy announcements in the run up to COP26, it’s getting harder and harder to escape the feeling that the Tories under Johnson, not for the first time, seem happy to will the ends but not the means.

As for spending more generally, while capital spending and infrastructure projects have received an expected boost, day-to-day government spending (much of which filters down, or rather doesn’t filter down to local authorities) is going to be as tight as ever, making the Government’s endlessly repeated talk about ‘levelling up’ a little hard to credit — unless, of course, we’re talking about money funnelled not to those most in need but to those constituencies in the Midlands and the North which flipped to the Conservatives in 2019 and which Johnson and his colleagues are understandably desperate to hold onto.

For all that, barring an economic meltdown in which the cost-of-living crunch really does become a crisis and the various trading frictions associated with Brexit get worse rather than better, they stand a pretty good chance of doing so.

The voter coalition that Brexit enabled Johnson to build is made up of older voters, of sometimes ethnocentric, not particularly well-educated, intensely patriotic voters living in small towns, and of more affluent voters in already well-served parts of the country who (if they are better-educated and so socially more liberal) are prepared to set aside their discomfort with the Brussels-bashing and the culture wars so long as their taxes are kept reasonably low and their precious house prices kept high. And, like Brexit — indeed precisely because Brexit continues to simmer even if it no longer boils — that voter coalition, whose geographical distribution is nicely suited to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, doesn’t seem done yet.

Certainly I wouldn’t bet on those voters taking seriously against the Budget even if it doesn’t fall hook, line and sinker for Sunak’s ‘new age of optimism’ line as much as his adoring fandom in the Tory-supporting press. They know, we know, that this is the British Conservative Party — doing whatever it takes, two-and-a-half centuries and counting. Rishi or no Rishi, there is nothing new under the sun.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2021/10/the-tories-will-never-change/

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‘What has happened to western Europe’s centre right?’ (with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser), The Conversation, 13 October 2021.

As a species, we humans are inveterate pattern makers. We’re also plagued by recency bias – the tendency to give more weight to things that have only just happened. Hardly surprising, then, that when analysing party politics, we tend to take the results of the latest elections and try to fit them into a trend.

That’s why the results of the recent election in Germany have caused a tailspin. The country looks set to have its first social democratic chancellor since 2005 after Olaf Scholz’s party emerged as the biggest in the Bundestag. That, in turn, has led at some point to the fact that the centre-left now governs a whole bunch of countries we’re very familiar with – and to wonder whether conservatives everywhere are in trouble.

It’s a good question. But to answer it, we need to first qualify what we mean by “conservative”. All too often it’s used to describe parties who would reject the label themselves. That’s certainly the case for the CDU/CSU – the big losers in the German election.

Christian democracy, in Germany and elsewhere, such as the Netherlands, Spain and Ireland, is a very different beast to conservatism and liberalism. It is as concerned with the “social” as it is with the “market” side of the social market. It is profoundly internationalist and with a view of society ultimately rooted in notions of community and family rather than the sovereign individual.

That’s why, when we’re trying to analyse trends, it’s arguably more helpful to talk about the mainstream right. This portmanteau term allows us to pick out those parties which (unlike parties of the left) have tended to govern in the interests of more comfortably off and/or socially traditional voters, but which (in contrast to the far-right parties on their flanks) regard the norms of both liberal democracy and the liberal international order as givens.

Looking at the trends for western Europe over the last four decades with this in mind, it’s clear that parties on the far right have become more popular over time, although not perhaps as much as some scare-story headlines are prone to suggest. Liberal parties have held fairly steady but it is the Christian democrats who’ve fared worst of all. As the chart shows, their performance across western Europe has declined more steadily than other conservatives since the 1980s.

The reasons for the trajectories of mainstream conservatives of all kinds are complex and obviously each country has its own story to tell. One cannot hope to appreciate the difficulties experienced by the mainstream right in Italy, for instance, without taking account of the post-cold war implosion of the country’s entire party system and the rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s hyper-personalist political outfits. Nor is it possible to understand the problems encountered by the Partido Popular in Spain without realising how big as issues that corruption and Catalan and Basque nationalism have each become.

However, as the research included in our new book shows, a useful way to frame the difficulties faced by the mainstream right more generally is to think of its members as facing two ongoing challenges.

One is the so-called silent revolution which, since the 1970s, has seen more and more people in Europe adopt what we might term cosmopolitan, progressive-individualist values. Their move away from the more traditional, and sometimes nationalistic and authoritarian, values associated (rightly or wrongly) with the right of the political spectrum has helped kickstart green and new left parties.

The other challenge is the so-called silent counter revolution: a backlash against that value-shift gathered pace in the 1990s and helped to fuel the rise of populist radical-right parties. Ever since, these have threatened to eat into the support of their more conventional counterparts on the right.

In fact, as the contributors to our book make clear, the mainstream right has indeed sometimes struggled to adapt – although some parties have coped better than others. But since their response has often involved adopting, over time, more socially liberal policies on issues like gender and sexuality while taking an increasingly nationalistic and restrictive stance on immigration, it is perhaps predictable that it is Europe’s Christian democratic parties (already coping with the decline of religious observance in a more secular world) which have struggled more than most.

Survival at what price?

But if liberal and conservative parties haven’t generally run into quite so much trouble, might that have come at a heavy cost, both to their reputations and to the longer-term health of liberal democracy? To take just one example, the British Conservative party, in its desperation to see off Nigel Farage’s various vehicles, has adopted europhobic and anti-immigration stances and seems determined to undermine the role of the judiciary and the independence of the Electoral Commission. Little wonder that some warn that it is going the way of Hungary and Poland.

That said, we need to be careful, as humans, not to over-interpret. And, recency bias aside, what’s just happened can sometimes still provide a useful reminder not to do so. In Austria, Sebastian Kurz – in some ways the poster-boy for the idea that mainstream right parties can win by hugging the far right close – seems to have come unstuck, undone by allegations of corruption. Over the border in the Czech Republic, the mainstream right seems to have performed better than expected in their elections.

Finally, in Germany, as a flow-of-the-vote analysis shows, although the CDU/CSU did suffer net losses to the Greens, it may well have lost more voters to the grim reaper than it did to the far-right AfD, given that an estimated 7% of its voters have died since the last election. At least this time anyway, it was the good old fashioned SPD, rather than the products of the silent revolution and counter revolution, that did it by far the most damage.

Radical right-wing populism and social liberalism, then, remain a significant dual threat to Europe’s mainstream right, but they should still keep a weather eye on their traditional rivals too.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/what-has-happened-to-western-europes-centre-right-169849

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‘Identity politics are a risky strategy for both Labour and the Tories’, Financial Times, 2 October 2021.

Corbynites soundly squashed. New policies floated. And voters encouraged to take another look at the party leader. Labour’s annual conference in Brighton finished on a high. So should the Conservatives be worried as they get together this weekend in Manchester? Probably not. But there’s no room for complacency.

To be brutally honest, whatever it does between now and then, Labour has probably already lost the next general election — primarily because it lost the last one so very badly.

Admittedly, Keir Starmer can take some hope from the fact that voters these days are fairly footloose: somewhere between a quarter and a third of people switched parties between each election in 2015, 2017, and 2019. Fewer than 20 per cent think of themselves as very strong supporters of a political party, with the so-called core vote for both the Tories and Labour now not much above 25 per cent each. Voters make up their minds later and later, as well: nearly a third of us these days don’t decide who to vote for until the election campaign proper gets going.

Sadly for Starmer, however, that doesn’t mean that ‘there’s still all to play for’. Most of us who study elections have given up on the idea of ‘uniform swing’ (where all constituencies shift the same way). There are, after all, more parties with support in different parts of the country than there used to be.

But it still bears repeating that Labour would need a swing of over 10 per cent simply to pull off what would pass for a miracle in two or three years’ time, namely an overall majority of just one seat.

That kind of Tory-to-Labour surge has only happened once in the past 75 years, in 1997. And the fact that it gifted Tony Blair a majority not of one solitary seat but 179 of them only heightens the pessimism surrounding his successor’s chances — even his chances of forming some kind of progressive coalition government.

As well as reflecting Labour’s loss of Scotland, it’s a reminder that the Conservative party’s predominantly English support is now so much more efficiently distributed than that of its main rival. While Labour piles up votes in seats where it doesn’t really need them — increasingly in urban Britain, with its younger, better-educated and ethnically diverse electorates — the Tories are winning in the suburbs and in smaller towns where voters are more likely to be white, a little older and to have left school without going on to university.

Those voters are less likely to warm to the identity politics which seem to strike such a chord with the socially liberal members of the Labour party — particularly when it comes to issues like race and immigration, law and order, and Britain’s place in the world, not least its relationship with the EU.

Boris Johnson’s recent decision to appoint Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary, as well his retention of Priti Patel as Home Secretary and David Frost to handle Brexit, suggests that he intends to carry on punching that particular bruise in the hope that it will guarantee him the continued support of voters in the so-called Red Wall of former Labour seats in the Midlands and the North.

But that strategy may be riskier than it looks. For one thing, polling shows that voters — even those political scientists would file under TAN (traditional-authoritarian-nationalist) as opposed to GAL (green, alternative, liberal) — are far less interested in culture wars than Tory politicians and newspapers wailing about ‘wokeness’ seem to think.

For another, a fair few voters are actively turned off by it. And some of them live in the so-called Blue Wall — seats around London and the home counties, some of which are credible opposition targets, especially as it is becoming increasingly obvious which party (Labour or the Lib Dems) people should back if they want to unseat their Tory MP.

In truth, however, Johnson probably doesn’t need to lose much sleep on this score — not for a few years yet anyway. What should worry him and his party far more is that his relationship with many of the voters who switched to the Tories in 2019 is, at root, transactional rather than romantic.

The switchers wanted a government that would ‘Get Brexit Done’ but mainly so it could move on and deal with the bread-and-butter issues they care about most. Indeed, when it comes to their economic values, many of them still have more in common with Labour than the Tories, most of whose MPs (not least Chancellor Rishi Sunak) are still (perhaps awkwardly for the PM) very much Thatcherites at heart.

Any failure, then, to tangibly ‘level up’ and to genuinely end austerity so as to improve public services, along with any loss of confidence in the government’s economic management, could still prove costly, if not fatal, to the Conservatives. Manchester: memento mori.

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/28e94b6a-fd64-445f-a258-7ec5c5a6b1cd

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