‘Why some people switch political parties: new research’, The Conversation, 12 July 2021.

Why do some people switch political parties? After all, if someone is committed enough to a particular vision of politics, wouldn’t they be relatively immune to the charms of its competitors?

It turns out, however, that switching parties at grassroots membership level is by no means uncommon, even giving rise in some quarters to accusations of “entryism”.

The massive increase in Labour’s membership which accompanied Jeremy Corbyn’s elevation to the leadership in 2015 was often anecdotally associated, at least in the minds of his enemies (internal as well as external), with an influx of people who had previously belonged to parties on the far left fringe of the country’s politics.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ adoption of an ever harder position on Brexit was blamed by some not just on Theresa May’s desire to keep Tory Eurosceptics on board, but on pressure put on more moderate MPs by former members of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) joining and even taking over their local associations.

Our new research sheds light on the truth of party-switching politics – how many people really switch, why people are motivated to do so, and whether the claims of entryism are credible.

Patterns of party-switching

We surveyed nearly 7,000 members of British political parties (including registered Brexit Party supporters) within two weeks of the 2019 general election. When we analysed the data, we found a remarkably high proportion of our sample (23%) claimed to have previously been – or, if we allow for registered Brexit Party supporters as well, currently were – members of a different political party than the one to which they were now affiliated.

Some 29% of Tory members who admitted in 2019 to having been members of other parties claim to have been UKIP members. Interestingly, though, virtually as many were former Labour members. As a proportion of all Conservative Party grassroots members, these figures amount to 3% who were former members of UKIP, 4.5% who were simultaneously Brexit Party supporters, and 4% who were ex-Labour members.

This puts into perspective the scale of the entryist phenomenon. At most, 7.5% of all Tory members in 2019 had a history of connections with UKIP or the Brexit Party (probably fewer, given the likely overlap of UKIP and Brexit Party connections).

This is not to say that their impact may not have been significant in certain constituencies when it came to selecting party candidates, nor is it to deny that the Conservative Party grassroots have increasingly come to favour “hard” forms of Brexit over the course of the past few years. But it would appear that, in the vast majority of cases, this will have been down to the changing views of members who had no formal associations with UKIP or the Brexit Party.

As for Labour’s members, two-fifths of those with previous party memberships joined the party after 2015 – surely the Corbyn effect? Those Labour members who had past lives in other organisations came mainly from the Greens or Liberal Democrats – or, intriguingly, from an amorphous “other parties” category, with the latter maybe hinting (but only hinting) at a degree (albeit limited) of entryism from the far left.

It is worth bearing in mind that the smaller parties have generally experienced even higher levels of cross-party flows, proportionately speaking. For instance, three-fifths of Green members were former Labour members, as were around half of SNP and Liberal Democrat members.

Why switch?

But what drives some people to quit one party and join another? Our research suggests that the most telling reasons are connected with ideology and party leaders. If people feel themselves to be in tune with particular a party in terms of its core values and leader, they are naturally attracted to join it. However, they are equally inclined to eventually quit the same party if they feel it or its leadership has changed tack and become more remote.

In particular, we discovered that ideological radicals are especially prone to switching parties. The same goes for Brexiteers -– although this is perhaps a time-sensitive finding relevant to the past few years, given the special power of Brexit to cut across longstanding patterns of partisan alignment.

Ultimately, the traditional breadth of the major parties in Britain partly reflects the nature of the first-past-the-post electoral system, which makes it hard for minor parties to gain parliamentary representation unless – like the Scottish and Welsh nationalists or, more unusually, the Greens in Brighton – they have geographical concentrations of support.

As a result, both Labour and the Conservatives are coalitions of quite diverse types of people. We should not be surprised, then, that their grassroots members often find themselves at odds with their parties’ policies – particularly when there is a change of direction brought about by a change of leadership.

A new leader intent on charting a different course from their predecessor – Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson are both obvious examples – can try to keep as many of their existing members on board as possible. But, ultimately, it may be better for all concerned – and a sign of healthy, pluralist democracy – if those who come to believe another party might represent a better fit for them depart so they can try it for size.

And nowadays, of course, with the emergence of parties that either weren’t around at all (such as populist radical right outfits like UKIP, the Brexit Party and Reform UK) or were less powerful than they are now (like the SNP), there are more alternatives on offer than ever.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/why-some-people-switch-political-parties-new-research-164112

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‘Post-truth – and post-conservative? How Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party poses a threat to the quality of our democracy’, Constitution Unit Blog, 5 July 2021.

I’m no expert on the constitution, the courts or the more arcane aspects of parliamentary procedure. But I can, I suppose, claim to know a bit about the Conservative Party. And I’m growing increasingly concerned.

The party has always been protean – shifting its shape, changing its colours like a chameleon to best suit the conditions in which it finds itself. But there have always been limits.

Margaret Thatcher may have been a disruptor, particularly when it came to undoing the post-war settlement to which her predecessors reluctantly agreed. Yet one always felt she had a basic respect for the conventions of representative democracy and the rule of law, even on those occasions where she and her governments pushed against them.

And the same went for her successors as Conservative premiers, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May. But Boris Johnson? I’m not so sure.

Wherever you look now, you see a government seemingly bent on freeing itself from the constraints that we used to take for granted – and that, in some ways, our uncodified constitution and parliamentary conventions left us little choice but to take for granted.

The examples are legion. The foreseeably illegal prorogation of parliament. The insouciance over the possibility of breaking international law and effectively reneging over commitments so recently made on Northern Ireland. The point-blank refusal to take action against a Cabinet colleague found to have breached the Ministerial Code. The brushing off of court judgments concluding that a succession of ministers have acted unlawfully. The casual willingness to mislead parliament. The way that PMQs has become even more of a farce than it was before. And most recently the proposal to strip powers from the Electoral Commission, which comes on top of plans to insist on voters having photo ID to combat a problem that the evidence suggests doesn’t really exist.

You may scoff at the idea that we live in a post-truth era. But, when it comes to politics, I’m afraid we’re not just heading in that direction; we’ve have already arrived.

As a middle-aged history buff I’m naturally inordinately fond of telling people with all the patronising pomposity at my command that ‘We’ve been here before.’ But in this case I’m honestly not sure that we have. Respect for the rules of the game or, at the very least, the fear of getting caught breaking them no longer seems to be widespread in the upper echelons of government. Before Matt Hancock resigned as Health Secretary, the last Cabinet minister to fall on their proverbial sword was Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns, who went in early November 2019, his offence (endorsing a former aide as a candidate for the Welsh Assembly despite allegedly knowing he had played a part in the collapse of a rape trial) being so egregious that he really had no choice.

It is just about possible, of course, that Hancock being forced out might give some pause for thought.  But I doubt it. It took an unknown whistleblower to go as far as to pass footage from a CCTV camera inside a ministerial office to a tabloid to catch the former Health Secretary in a ‘steamy clinch’ – and even then, it’s abundantly clear that he and the PM were initially convinced that he could and should hang on to his job.

It’s as if Johnson and his colleagues, buoyed up by a largely supportive (if occasionally tetchy) print media, a cowed broadcast media, and an apparently unassailable Commons majority, have realised that – except in the most blindingly obvious, ‘caught in the act and on camera’ cases – the emperor has no clothes. They’ve woken up to the fact that the checks and balances we’ve rather naively assumed would always impose limits on any government, Tory or Labour, can be ignored with little or nothing in the way of consequences, electoral or otherwise.

Given the traditional weakness of the opposition in the UK system, whether this continues to be the case will depend in large part on whether Conservative backbenchers are willing to go the way of their Republican counterparts across the pond – sticking to a Faustian pact with a populist leader that sees them saying and doing (and putting up with) pretty much anything that leader does, even when at least some of them know in their hearts that what he’s doing may be damaging the very democracy they purport to uphold.

True, there are a bunch of Tory MPs willing to challenge their government over COVID-19 regulations. But ask yourself this: how many of them are protesting purely to preserve civil liberties rather than because they’ve somehow convinced themselves that lockdowns don’t actually work?

According to John Stuart Mill, ‘Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.’ I know I can’t be the only one to worry that this might be precisely what is happening on the right of the political spectrum in Britain – just as it’s happened in other places previously and (as other contributors to this blog have noted) is happening again, both in East European countries like Hungary and Poland and in the United States of America.

The British Conservative Party, perhaps more so than most other mainstream centre-right parties in Europe, has long flirted with populism – even (her critics would doubtless say ‘especially’) under Margaret Thatcher.  But it has never embraced it as fully, and as recklessly, as it seems to be doing right now.  Let’s just hope it comes to its senses before it’s too late.

Originally published at https://constitution-unit.com/2021/07/05/post-truth-and-post-conservative-how-boris-johnsons-conservative-party-poses-a-threat-to-the-quality-of-our-democracy/ This post is one of a series of posts by speakers at the Unit’s conference on the government’s constitutional reform agenda. Professor Bale appeared during the final panel of the conference, entitled Rebalancing between parliament, executive and the courts, alongside Unit Director Meg Russell, former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve and Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The panel is available free of charge on YouTube and on our podcast.

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‘Sajid Javid sounds like a lockdown sceptic, but he won’t want to alienate the NHS’, Guardian, 30 June 2021

Sajid Javid. Who doesn’t know the rags-to-riches backstory? The immigrant parents, the local comp and FE college, the BA in economics and politics at Exeter, the stellar career in international banking, the 98% pay cut to become an MP, the rapid ascent of the ministerial ladder, culminating in his becoming home secretary and then chancellor – only to resign when he was done over by Dominic Cummings.

But now that “The Saj” (does anyone ever really call him that?) is back in the great game, replacing Matt Hancock as health and social care secretary (not officially one of the so-called great offices of state, though after the past year and a half it surely should be) what should we expect? Ayn Rand or Florence Nightingale? A neo-Darwinian who’s hellbent on opening up the economy come what may; or a humanitarian numbers-nerd intent above all on saving lives?

To hear some of the early chatter, especially in those Tory-supporting newspapers whose neoliberal ideology (along with their advertising-based business models), has seen them continually urging Boris Johnson to go further and faster in easing restrictions, the new health secretary is very much in their camp. Cue the proverbial “well-placed source” telling the Daily Telegraph that “he’s a real lockdown sceptic …the tilt in the cabinet has just shifted quite considerably”.

Certainly, Javid’s initial public pronouncements could be readily spun in this “hawkish” vein. He might have begun by dashing the frankly absurd hopes of some Tory backbenchers in the self-styled Covid Recovery Group for an even earlier end to what they see as the nanny-state equivalent of martial law. But, by all but confirming full reopening on 19 July in spite of the recent surge in cases driven by the Delta variant, Javid’s words must still have been sweet music to their libertarian ears: “No date we choose comes with zero risk for Covid,” he told the Commons. “We cannot eliminate it, instead we have to learn to live with it.”

The fact that he then went on to declare that “my task is to help return the economic and cultural life that makes this country so great” can only have added to their mounting excitement, especially given that his rider – “while of course protecting life and our NHS” – appeared to have been added almost as an afterthought.

Those already inclined to worry about Javid’s appointment will also point to the fact that, be it during his initial rise to the top or his subsequent 18 months in the relative wilderness, he appears to have demonstrated no great interest in any of the issues for which he is now responsible. Indeed, they could very well argue that, as a former Conservative chancellor (and an ex-junior Treasury minister under George Osborne), the man now charged with finding the resources to tackle the enormous backlog of procedures and pressure for pay increases facing the NHS, is at his happiest when saying “no” rather than “yes, we can!”

Yet this might be premature. For one thing, Javid isn’t the cardboard cut-out Tory austerian he’s sometimes made out to be. In 2019, he was not slow to acknowledge the case for promising a significant increase in health spending in the Tory manifesto that year. For another, not only is Javid more of a pragmatist than people give him credit for, he knows that the minority community from which his own family comes has been hit harder than most by Covid-19.

As a result – and because he is also one of the few ministers around the cabinet with a genuine affinity for numbers and data – Javid is no more likely than the much-maligned Hancock to ignore whatever the evidence seems to be telling him, even if he doesn’t always like it.

In any case, in the end, no health secretary is an island. Javid may be in a virtually unsackable position right now. But he will not want to start by alienating his top scientific advisers, or the massed ranks of the NHS and its powerful policy community – not if he wants to make a success of his new job.

Javid is also an elected politician. He’s bound to fancy another tilt at the leadership some day, so of course his parliamentary colleagues – many of whom are lockdown sceptics – matter. But so too do the voters. And polls show that, while most of us are looking forward to more freedom, we don’t want it at any price.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/30/sajid-javid-lockdown-nhs-matt-hancock

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‘Reflecting on Brexit: What I got right and wrong about the 2016 EU Referendum’, 21 June 2021

The idea that none of us know-all academics saw what was coming has hardened into one of the truisms of the 2016 Referendum – so much so that I’d almost come to believe it myself.

It was with some trepidation, then, that I embarked upon re-reading and reflecting on what I’d written some six months before it took place, not least because the one thing I did recall about it was that, after declaring that predicting the result was ‘the mug’s game to end all mug’s games’, I’d taken a punt anyway and concluded that Remain would probably win.

So, I don’t mind admitting that it came as a huge relief to realise upon reflection that what I’d written contained a bunch of qualifications and caveats that only an absurdly generous editor like Anand Menon would allow anyone to get away with.

First and foremost, my prediction that Brits would ‘ultimately vote – albeit by a much narrower margin than they did in 1975 – to remain in the EU’ turned out only to be a ‘[g]un-to-head … best guess’ rather than a confident assertion.

Moreover – and, I suspect, like many of my ivory-tower ilk – I did appear not only to have had at least some inkling that the result could go the other way but also some ideas as to why that might turn out to be the case.

For a start, I suggested it would ‘be worth paying very close attention to how big the turnout looks like being’, noting that, although ‘[w]ell-heeled, well-educated people tend to vote more than those who aren’t so lucky, which should be good for the in campaign’, we needed to bear in mind that ‘the old vote in far greater numbers than the young…, which should be good for Leave.’

Much as I’d love a retrospective pat on the back for that, however, I confess I don’t deserve one.

For one thing, I boldly declared that ‘if the proportion of those going to the polls comes anywhere near the 64.5% it reached in 1975, most psephologists would be surprised.’

For another, even if I had guessed that turnout on the day would, in fact, reach 72.2%, I know that I wouldn’t have gone on to suggest that such a figure would mean that far more so-called ‘left-behind’ voters were casting a ballot than most observers were predicting.

As it turned out, getting those voters, who didn’t normally vote, to the polling station – and getting them there without the Remain campaign realising they could be so effectively mobilised – was Dominic Cummings’ great genius.

Moving swiftly on, I’d give myself a little more credit for, first, suggesting that David Cameron’s renegotiation wasn’t going to prove particularly useful for the Remain campaign.

I’d give myself a little more credit, second, for pointing out that, when it came to Nigel Farage, in an era where sticking two fingers up at the despised and disconnected ‘political class’ is deemed perfectly legitimate, even perhaps as a public service, UKIP’s leader is arguably nowhere near as poisonous to the anti-European cause as Enoch Powell or, on the other side of the ideological fence, Tony Benn were to its 1970s equivalent.

Another potential contrast between the 1975 and 2016 referendums to which I managed to point was the attitude of the business community: this time around, I predicted – correctly, as it turned out – it would be significantly less united and assertive about staying in Europe.

Fortunately for me (although unfortunately if you’re a passionate Remainer), I also noted that Her Majesty’s Opposition under Jeremy Corbyn was likely to be a lot less wholehearted a campaigner for the pro-European cause than it was (those were the days!) under Margaret Thatcher.

My luck then ran temporarily dry when (based on the political science literature, mind!), I brought up both status quo bias and the fact that referendums often proved something of an education for voters as factors in Remain’s favour: after all, we’d been EU members for over forty years and being better-informed about the EU tended to go hand-in-hand with being more supportive of it.

In the event, a lot of voters didn’t actually think much of the status quo and the referendum didn’t exactly turn out to be the school for democracy some might have hoped for.

Things took a turn for the better (or at least the more accurate), however, when I suggested that ‘the success of the out campaign may well hinge upon the extent to which it can, without tipping over into the toxicity that might alienate many moderate voters, make the referendum a plebiscite on how many foreigners this country can afford to take in.’

That this was precisely what happened was down in no small part to the fact that Leave’s argument on immigration was rendered respectable (if hardly honest, especially when it came to tales of Turkey’s imminent accession) by mainstream Conservative politicians.

Admittedly, I was premature in suggesting that one of those Tories who might become a convert to Leave would be the then Home Secretary Theresa May, who could then, I reckoned, ‘put herself forward in the event…that Cameron and Osborne resign in the wake of defeat in the referendum.’

Yet ultimately I can, I guess, claim to have got the most important campaign development of all pretty much right by warning that ‘[t]he real danger, though, is – as perhaps it’s always been – Boris.’

Although I noted the then Mayor of London was ‘more risk-averse (and more willing to bide his time) than many realise’, I nonetheless wondered whether he ‘might be persuaded to throw proverbial caution to the winds’, and finished by declaring that ‘if he does press the Brexit button, all bets could be off.’

Prediction, then, is a mug’s game and, by indulging in it and by calling the result of the referendum wrong, I naturally made a mug of myself. But being asked to look back on what I wrote turns out, on balance, to have been more of a catharsis than a complete embarrassment.

If only that were always the case!

Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/reflecting-brexit/

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‘Lib Dems beating the Tories where Labour can’t is what Keir Starmer badly needs’, Daily Mirror, 18 May 2021.

Don’t get too excited. We’ve seen the Lib Dems pull off an amazing by-election win in a true-blue seat before, only for the Conservatives to take it off them again at the next general election.

Take Eastbourne. Back in the autumn of 1990, it produced a shock result that helped seal right-wing legend, Maggie Thatcher’s fate.

But it duly turned Tory again less than two years later when, in the spring of 1992, her successor, John Major, dashed Neil Kinnock’s hopes of forming a Labour government.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should write off what’s just happened in Chesham and Amersham as a blip – a future footnote in political history we can put down to protest voting, in this case against HS2 and new planning laws.

That’s because – potentially at least – the Lib Dems remain a force to be reckoned with in parts of the South of England which Labour stands no chance of winning but which it badly needs the Conservatives to lose if Keir Starmer is ever to make it to Downing Street.

Ed Davey’s party used to do well in the South West but nowadays it’s better placed to pick up seats in the central southern and south eastern England.

In the so-called ‘home counties’ (and in a few other places) there are 29 seats that the Lib Dems could plausibly claim to be reasonably well-positioned to win. And in 23 of them they are the main challenger to the Conservatives, with every other party a distant third.

Proverbially ‘leafy’ Surrey could be especially fertile territory if Boris Johnson continues to ignore what some are calling the ‘Blue Wall’ in favour of his ‘Red Wall’ further north. Boundary changes permitting, obvious targets include Carshalton, Esher, Guilford, and Woking.

There’s been some talk recently of the threat posed to the Conservatives by the Greens, and Labour understandably tried to make the most of some scattered local election successes, such as the West of England mayoralty, Cambridgeshire and Worthing.

Make no mistake, though. If the Tories do run into trouble, then in the South, outside London at least, it’s the Lib Dems who pose the biggest threat to Boris Johnson’s majority at the next election.

Of course, that majority is a pretty comfortable one – but it may feel a little less comfortable today than it used to.

Originally published at https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/lib-dems-beating-tories-labour-24348746

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‘PLOUGHED UNDER? LABOUR’S GRASSROOTS POST-CORBYN’, Political Quarterly Blog, 17 June 2021.

Labour’s post-Corbyn membership is overwhelmingly white, well-educated, middle class and middle-aged, and living in southern England. Labour members are disproportionately likely to work in the public or charitable sector. They are left-wing, socially liberal, and pro-European. This means they have a lot in common with Labour MPs but much less in common with many of the voters Labour desperately needs to win back. A significant number of members could leave as a result of Corbyn being replaced by Starmer, but whether this will have much impact on Labour’s electoral prospects is debatable.

Why is membership important?

The British media tends to assume that members are always more extreme than party leaders and are therefore a liability rather than an asset. But there are reasons why parties are still concerned to maintain and increase their membership levels. A vibrant appeal and healthy levels of internal activity helps to establish legitimacy with the electorate. Members provide a reliable core of voters, becoming ambassadors for the party in the local community, and are a source of candidates for public office. Parties still rely on members to do necessary voluntary work during an election campaign, especially intensive activities like canvassing and leafleting, as well as for their significant financial contribution. Finally, members can be a source of policy ideas and a direct link to information about public concerns.

Labour members, Labour MPs and potential Labour voters

Some 83 per cent of Labour members voted Remain in 2016, and—very much in keeping with the media stereotype—the majority of members are pretty left-wing and socially very liberal. Our surveys showed that in 2017 two-thirds of Labour members fell into what we call the socially liberal left cluster, with the rest divided fairly evenly between the conventional centre and the socially conservative left—and none at all in the socially conservative right.

Despite what we sometimes read in the media, which tends to play up ideological divisions between them, Labour’s MPs and its members are closely aligned on many social and economic issues. MPs are, if anything, more radical than the party’s rank and file: some 59 per cent of the latter but 74 per cent of the former, for instance, disagree with the notion that ‘young people don’t have enough respect for traditional British values’; meanwhile the proportions disagreeing with the idea (popular among voters) that ‘people who break the law should be given stiffer sentences’ run at 40 and 45 per cent respectively.

But if there is less difference between Labour’s MPs and its grassroots members than is often imagined, what about the differences between the rank and file and those who it needs to vote for it?

The party’s members are a little more left-wing than the party’s 2019 voters and significantly more so than voters as a whole—especially those voters Labour will have to win back if it is to stand any chance at the next election. Only 17 per cent of Labour members agree that ‘young people don’t have enough respect for traditional British values’, but this view was held by 88 per cent of Labour-to-Conservative switchers in 2019. This is just one illustration of the fact that the gap between Labour members and those who switched was much bigger on social values than economic ones, which is also one of the reasons some Conservatives see electoral benefit in pursuing ‘culture wars’.

This is a potential problem for Starmer’s Labour: it might try to produce policies and project an image more in keeping with the views of the voters it needs to win back, but that effort may be compromised by those it relies on to communicate it on the ground.

Antisemitism at the grassroots

One big problem facing Starmer with regard to the membership is his decision not to re-admit Jeremy Corbyn to the Parliamentary Labour Party. This has caused considerable anger among some at the grassroots. Recent polling suggested that 48 per cent of LabourList subscribers believed Starmer was wrong not to restore the whip to Corbyn. And, although when asked whether the Labour Party was currently moving in the right or wrong direction, 55 per cent replied ‘right’, 40 per cent still said ‘wrong’, with that proportion increasing to 53 per cent among those who joined the party in 2015 or later. Starmer does indeed have a fight on his hands, one he clearly has to win if he is to retain the support of the Jewish community and the respect of many of the voters Labour needs to switch from blue to red in 2024.

The future

Our research shows that members tend to quit when they become less closely aligned with their parties, suggesting that many of Corbyn’s followers will eventually leave if they haven’t already done so—especially if Labour under Starmer distances itself from the Corbyn era yet looks as if it is failing to reap any electoral rewards for so doing.

The atmosphere is certainly febrile. But we have been here before. Aside from the 1990s, there isn’t a decade in the post-war period which hasn’t witnessed Labour’s members trying to constrain its leadership, then getting angry and leaving—often in their tens or hundreds of thousands. Labour members are fairly unrepresentative of the voters Labour needs to win over to its cause before 2024, so giving them what they want in order to prevent that happening would be risky—and as Labour discovered to its cost in 2019, a large membership doesn’t necessarily help you at election time. This doesn’t mean that grassroots members are always a liability. Indeed, the capacity to realise their potential as an asset is surely one of the marks of effective leadership.

Originally published at https://politicalquarterly.blog/2021/06/17/ploughed-under-labours-grassroots-post-corbyn/ and a longer version of this article can be found in the Political Quarterly here.

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‘Is the UK choosing between the EU and the US?’, Encompass, 10 June 2021

Writing as the 20th century turned into the 21st, Andrew Gamble argued that Margaret Thatcher had ‘legitimated opposition to Europe’ by suggesting ‘that there was an alternative’: ‘the English adventure’, he averred,

was not over, provided English sovereignty was not given up. Priority should be given to America over Europe, because this was the guarantee of preserving an open seas, open trade policy, cultivating links with all parts of the world….True internationalism, she argued, meant avoiding entanglement with a protectionist, inward-looking, interventionist, high cost continental economy.

Two decades later, we know her words proved persuasive. But does Brexit mean that the UK has finally made the choice that leant Gamble his title, Between Europe and America? Or is the country destined forever to oscillate between them?

The early indications suggest the latter rather than the former. Indeed, the Conservatives– for all that the majority of their MPs can be classified as Brexiteers, as Atlanticists, as neoliberals, and therefore as Thatcherites – continue to hope (not necessarily irrationally and very much in keeping with their leader’s oft-quoted mantra) that they can have their cake and eat it too.

On trade, even ‘hard’ Brexit can hardly be said, in the light of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement signed in December 2020, to represent a ‘clean break’ with the EU.

True the Northern Ireland Protocol is currently generating serious tensions between Brussels and London. And the UK government also insists on trumpeting its supposed successes in negotiating trade deals with other countries.

But the Biden administration has made it abundantly clear this week that if the UK is to stand any chance of progressing a free trade agreement with the US (something of a holy grail for Brexiteers), then it will need to stick to its commitments under the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement. And even if such an agreement is eventually reached, the most optimistic official estimate of the resulting increase to UK GDP puts it at no more than 0.36% – nice to have, admittedly, but nowhere near the value added by its continued trade with Europe.

As for foreign and defence policy, while the Johnson government’s recently published ‘integrated review’, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, declares that ‘[t]he United States will remain the UK’s most important strategic ally and partner’ and hints at an ‘indo-Pacific tilt’, the reality behind the rhetoric is more familiar.

Admittedly, the review makes a rather desperate attempt, across a range of areas ranging from defence, cybersecurity and sanctions, to paint the EU qua EU out of the picture. But even it is forced to concede that ‘we will work with the EU where our interests coincide – for example, in supporting the stability and security of the European continent and in cooperating on climate action and biodiversity.’

Moreover, ‘[t]he Euro-Atlantic region will remain critical to the UK’s security and prosperity’. In this respect, not only are bilateral relationships with various EU member states mentioned but so, too, are interoperability and participation in the Joint Expeditionary Force. NATO clearly comes first; but the OSCE and the Council of Europe get honourable mentions too. In short, geopolitically, this is not some sort of grand ‘Goodbye to Europe.’

But what about political economy? Surely Brexit, at the very least, will see the Conservative Party finally purging the UK of any last remaining vestiges of continental social democracy so it can hare off in pursuit of full-blown, Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism?

So far, anyway, the answer appears to be no. Talk of the Treasury’s spending taps being left on even after the pandemic may well be premature. But rather than paring back employment rights, freeing British firms from corporate responsibilities, slashing taxes, and generally preparing for a race to the bottom, all the talk is of the state having a greater role in building infrastructure and seeding innovation.

Moreover the Conservative’s new electoral coalition – built, it is vital to recall, not on Brexit alone but on the promise to former Labour (and UKIP) voters that Brexit will mean greater public spending aimed at ‘levelling up’ left-behind parts of provincial England – will make it trickier than ever to transform the UK into Anglo-America.

Ultimately, a middle-ranking island-nation situated just off the northwest coast of the European landmass – and one whose glory days are very much behind it – can neither deny nor defy the realities of geography and the laws (such as they are) of economics.

‘Gravity’ means that the EU will remain the UK’s most important trading partner. And the threat posed by Russia means that it will always need to look first to the defence of the continent of which it is a part even as it takes an interest in matters further afield. Meanwhile, the evidence from other economies of what works, as well as an electorate that has grown to expect the state to provide more than a mere safety net, renders further (neo)liberalisation economically and electorally risky.

So, while some Conservatives will always look longingly across the Atlantic, the continent across the North Sea and the English Channel cannot help but continue to count.

Originally published at https://encompass-europe.com/comment/is-the-uk-choosing-between-the-eu-and-the-us

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‘G7 summit: what to expect from Boris Johnson as Joe Biden visits the UK’, The Conversation, 7 June 2021

Joe Biden’s first trip to the UK as US President this week is bound to produce hundreds of hot takes on the state of the so-called special relationship, most looking for signs either of its continuing strength or its more or less imminent demise.

Runes will be read, words parsed, and body-language interpreted in the hope of answering two perennial questions: does this new administration in Washington value the UK as much as its predecessors valued it? And does it value the UK more than it values any other country?

Sad but true – and should you doubt it, just cast your mind back to late January and the evident (some would say pathetic) satisfaction occasioned in the pages of Britain’s Conservative-supporting press by the news that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and not German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was the first leader outside North America to get a phone call from Joe.

But if those questions are perennial they will also be seen as all the more burning this time around.

For one thing, there’s Donald Trump. Although Boris Johnson eventually did his best not to appear too pally with him, the PM couldn’t help but be seen as something of an ally of the 45th President – even, perhaps a populist kindred spirit.

Then there’s Brexit and, in particular, concerns that the UK is playing fast and loose with arrangements for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Sticking to the agreed plan is regarded in the US as crucial to the maintenance of the Good Friday Agreement that guarantees peace on the island. The new president is proudly Irish-American and takes the US role as custodian of the peace deal very seriously.

Post-Brexit trade

But another Brexit-related anxiety will be bothering Johnson just as much. The prospect (or otherwise) of a free trade deal with Washington is always on his mind. After all, a key element of the Brexit promise was freeing British governments to strike free trade deals with other countries. And, surely, no country offers a bigger and better prize in this respect than the world’s richest state, the US?

Possibly, but before anyone gets too excited it is worth noting that the UK government’s most optimistic estimate is that such a deal would increase its own GDP by just 0.36%. That’s non-trivial, perhaps, but (like the apparently imminent FTA with Australia or the deal just reached with Norway, Iceland and mighty Lichtenstein) hardly a triumph unless, heaven forfend, Brexit is as much about symbols than substance.

It may of course be that the UK’s plan to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) might mitigate any failure to negotiate a bilateral deal between London and Washington, especially if the latter were eventually to join it too. Unfortunately, however, “eventually” looks like a fairly long time away right now.

Resetting international relations

Still, if progress stalls on a US-UK FTA, the Johnson government can always take refuge in its defence and intelligence cooperation with the US. That’s especially true now that it is dealing with a president who is, to say the least, rather more sceptical about his Russian counterpart than his predecessor.

Biden also appears, however, to be prepared to continue Trump’s tough stance on China, albeit couched in much less inflammatory language. This is something that will suit a Conservative Party which has come a long way from the days when the far-from-sinosceptic David Cameron was taking China’s President Xi Jinping down the pub for a pint.

The meeting of minds on that issue may well explain how heavily the UK government’s recently published integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy was spun as ushering in an “Indo-Pacific tilt”.

Once again, however, if we look past the symbolism to the substance, it is obvious that the review, in addition to emphasising that “the US-UK partnership underpins our security and saves lives”, continues to see Britain’s main contribution to western defence as covering what it calls “the Euro-Atlantic area” and supporting Washington’s long-running campaign to get other NATO allies to up their military spending.

There are also less familiar points of communality that the UK will be keen to leverage. The most obvious among these is multinational tax reform and (even if activists worry that politicians tend to will the ends but not the means) the collective fight against climate change.

Whether any of this will be enough to persuade sceptical Democrats that Johnson is anything other than a “shapeshifting creep”, as one of them none-too-diplomatically put it just after they’d won the White House, is a moot point.

What we can say with rather more certainty, however, is that Johnson, who’s borrowed liberally from the film Love Actually before, will be even less inclined than any of his predecessors to do a Hugh Grant and tell the US president that “the country of Shakespeare, Churchill, The Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham’s right foot, David Beckham’s left foot” is no longer going to do what it’s told by Washington.

Indeed, if anything, post Brexit, the tone will be more Notting Hill than Love Actually. Johnson is cast in the Julia Roberts role, begging America to remember that, as has long been the case when it comes to the special relationship, Britain’s “just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her.

Oringinally published at https://theconversation.com/g7-summit-what-to-expect-from-boris-johnson-as-joe-biden-visits-the-uk-162278

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‘I know why social care isn’t being fixed’, Tortoise, 11 March 2021

It was the cheese that settled it. Until then I’d made all sorts of excuses. “They’re just getting old.” “They’ve never been the most organised of people.” “Everyone has the odd mood-swing.” “If only they actually wore the bloody hearing aid!” You know the kind of thing. But when you open the fridge and find fifteen unopened blocks of cheddar, as many of them green and mouldy as fresh and yellow, then you know there’s a problem.

And when you open the kitchen cupboards and find them fit to bursting with pack after pack of paper towels and precious little else, you wonder how on earth you hadn’t realised just how bad things had become.

In reality, the reason is pretty simple. Dementia, as Hemingway observed of bankruptcy, happens “gradually and then suddenly.” And it’s all the more difficult to notice in someone you love because, subconsciously, you can’t bear to think of it happening to them – and, if you’re brutally honest with yourself – to you. 

It’s harder still to acknowledge that your Mum really is losing it when it means that, even with carers coming in twice a day, she can no longer look after your Dad, whose multiple sclerosis has left him less and less able to look after himself.

So you try to avoid the inevitable. They’ll manage. Both you and the carers can pop round more often. You organise meals on wheels.

But it’s no good. Dad tells you Mum’s insisting they eat dinner only a couple of hours after they’ve eaten lunch. And anyway, she’s leaving the plastic lids on the plates when she puts them in the hot oven. She’s found wandering in the street by a stranger. She’s ringing you in the early hours of the morning to ask, of all things, how the dog’s doing. She’s not changing her clothes, not taking a shower. He falls out of his wheelchair and can’t get up. But, instead of phoning for an ambulance, she lies down beside him for a few hours before finally calling you. He goes into hospital – yet again. You go round to check on her and realise she’s slept in her clothes, that she’s running a fever, and worse – much worse. So you take her down to A&E where they ask her some standard questions, and she tells them she’s got lots more children than she’s ever really had, and that the year she was born is actually today’s date.

So now they’re both in hospital – the same hospital, in different wards – but discharge is soon looming. They clearly can’t go home, though. So you’ve got no choice. 

You find a nursing home. It comes highly recommended. Which is lucky because it’s literally the only place locally where they can actually stay together. You know it’s going to cost a bomb, of course, but it is what it is. The only thing that really matters is that they’re safe and secure and not separated, right?

Right. But also wrong, obviously. Social care – especially residential nursing care – is expensive. And when it’s for two people rather than one, it’s phenomenally expensive. Certainly more expensive than anyone who hasn’t ever had to think about paying for it probably imagines. True, the cost varies – partly according to the level of care, partly according to the quality of that care, and partly according to where you live. But – whatever – it doesn’t come cheap.

Before my Dad died last summer (not of Covid-19, although that impacted hugely, of course, on the manner of his passing) his care costs were getting on for £9,000 per month. For my Mum, who, just before Dad died, had to move to the secure, specialist dementia-care facility on the top floor, it now costs around £8,500 per month – although, I hereby confess that around a hundred quid of that (that is, just over 1 per cent of the total) goes on “luxuries” like getting her hair or her toenails done and getting the newspaper every day (even if she did inform me a couple of weeks back that it must be her own mum – who passed away over 25 years ago, mind – who sends those in).

In both cases, there was and is some contribution from the state, but it’s not huge. In Mum’s case, for instance, the NHS contributes just over £800 a month – slightly less than 10 per cent of the cost – which goes straight to the nursing home. The Department for Work and Pensions also provides just under £390 “attendance allowance” (a benefit for elderly and disabled people who need assistance). Overall, then, over 85 per cent of the cost has to be covered from her own pocket.

When the commission led by Andrew Dilnot reported in 2011, it recommended a cap be placed on the amount that anyone should have to pay for social care over their lifetime of somewhere between £25,000 and £50,000. When the Cameron government legislated, however, that cap was set at £72,000.

My Dad, then, would have reached that ceiling in under a year; my Mum in maybe a year-and-a-half. At which point, the welfare state should have swept in to pick up the tab. Except, of course, that it didn’t, and it hasn’t. The Cameron government’s legislation was never actually implemented, since, without a massive injection of funds from Whitehall, it would rapidly have bankrupted councils up and down the country.

Instead, most recipients of long-term social care in Britain rely not on cradle-to-grave but on “asset-based” welfare – using the wealth accumulated in their working lives to pay for what they need when they get old and sick. Shorn of that euphemism, this means – for most of us anyway – flogging the house that you always hoped you’d be passing on to your family.

On the upside, this system (if it can really be called a system) can at least make a claim to be progressive – a sort of pre-emptive inheritance tax, paid by the living. All your assets can be taken into consideration when calculating your contribution to your own social care, until they dwindle to £23,250 – the point at which English local authorities do begin to pay for care. 

On the downside, it’s essentially Russian roulette – with many of the biggest losers coming from the normally sharp-elbowed, middle-aged, middle classes who find that, depending upon their circumstances, their families are paying huge sums by equity release or other, often desperate, measures.

Yet in spite of that, there remains relatively little electoral pressure on the government to overcome its predictable concerns about post-pandemic public finances, as well as its equally understandable fear of being seen to be proposing another “dementia tax” (as Theresa May was during her disastrous 2017 general election campaign). Boris Johnson promised on his very first day in office to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all” but is not (for now) facing a public outcry to deliver the goods.

Why? The answer surely lies, at least in part, in what neuroscientists call “optimism bias”: the conviction, apparently hard-wired into humans, that encourages us to move onward and upward rather than simply despair in the face of our inevitable demise; the strong feeling that things will be better (for our family and friends anyway) than all the statistics suggest. £8,500 a month? You could get a much better deal. Disability and dementia? They won’t happen to you – I mean, what are the chances?

Fairly high, as it turns out. Sadly, so is the correlation between realism and pessimism. The prime minister, of all people, being obliged by the great British public to keep this particular promise? Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

Originally published at https://www.tortoisemedia.com/2021/03/11/tim-bale-i-know-why-social-care-isnt-being-fixed/

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‘The Conservatives’, UK in a Changing Europe, Beyond Brexit Report, 19 January 2021.

WHERE HAVE WE COME FROM?

The Conservative Party went into the 2016 referendum with more of its MPs supporting remaining in the EU than leaving. Once voters had spoken, however, the majority of Tories at Westminster were prepared to respect ‘the will of the people’. Any who refused, or simply showed too little enthusiasm, either walked out or were thrown out.

After Boris Johnson’s big win at the 2019 General Election, the Conservatives became a party largely for and of Leavers. Most of its voters had supported and continued to support Brexit. The same was true of grassroots Tories in constituency associations up and down the land.

WHERE ARE WE NOW?

Views on issues apart from Brexit, however, are rather more varied. There are some significant differences between the underlying values of Tory MPs, their rank-and-file members, and their voters. Those elected to Westminster are relatively socially liberal but also significantly more neo-liberal, economically speaking, particularly when compared to voters who switched to the Conservatives from Labour at the last election.

Even now, it is easy to see how these differences render any attempt to win the next contest by waging some sort of ‘culture war’ on Labour’s supposed political correctness on, say, ethnicity or gender potentially tricky. Those differences may also mean there is a limit to which, once the pandemic has passed, many Tory MPs will accept the tax and spending required if the Government is to come anywhere near honouring its promise to level up ‘left-behind’ parts of the country.

WHERE ARE WE HEADING?

Yet, notwithstanding the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street, delivering to voters in the former ‘Red Wall’ seats will remain a crucial plank in the Conservative Party’s agenda. Research on voters in those seats, neatly encapsulated in Deborah Mattinson’s recent book, makes it clear that their expectations are, as she herself puts it, ‘sky-high’.

Many, maybe most, of those who helped switch seats from red to blue clearly believe that a combination of Brexit and Boris Johnson’s promise to lavish more attention and more cash on them will bring back the manufacturing industries of the past that made Britain the workshop of the world. That, they hope, will put money in people’s pockets that they will be able to spend in spanking new high streets.

More than that, as Mattinson shows, they want law and order brought to sometimes crime-ridden neighbourhoods, they want jobs and social housing going to ‘local people’ rather than to ethnic minorities they still insist on seeing as immigrants, and they want to make sure that benefits only go to those they regard as deserving, not to ‘scroungers.’ They also want to see a Britain supposedly freed from the shackles of the EU get the respect from the rest of the world they feel it deserves.

While many Tories will wholeheartedly share such sentiments and believe they bode well for their chances of re-election, their colleagues in government know that it’s going to be a big ask to satisfy them — or, more realistically, to be seen to have made a decent start on satisfying them — by 2024.

True, Covid-19 may ensure that the Johnson administration is given slightly more leeway by sympathetic voters than might otherwise have been the case. On the other hand, the enormous sums of money that have had to be spent on combatting it are already prompting demands for the state to tighten its belt again once the emergency is over. That is, unless Conservative MPs and the Treasury, both of whom are instinctively hostile to what they regard as undue profligacy and unsustainable borrowing, can be convinced otherwise. If not, it will be difficult to make a serious start on any
levelling up agenda worth the name, let alone allow the party to tackle massive underlying problems from which, again and again, it has shied away, most obviously social care. Any retrenchment, even if it were to stop short of a return to austerity, could also mean the economy (and employment) recovers less rapidly than it needs to.

Against this, a development that is easily portrayed as awkward for the party — the establishment of the Northern Research Group of concerned MPs from the region — may actually prove useful. Their desire to hold the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire might offset calls for ‘sound finance’ at least when it comes to capital if not current spending.

The same might also be said of another development — the emergence of a Labour Party that, for the first time for a long time, seems to have chosen a leader seen as a credible candidate for the premiership.

Talk of which leads to a final thought. The shine has clearly come off the current leader of the Conservative Party, not least because his handling of the pandemic is widely regarded by the public as poor, even chaotic — and the same adjectives can be applied to some of his Cabinet. Re-establishing the party’s reputation for competence, as well as projecting a more consensual, less aggressively confrontational image, will be difficult. Indeed, it may well necessitate making big changes in personnel, up to and, who knows, including the prime minister himself.

How the party handles renewed demands for Scottish independence this year may well play a crucial part in such an effort. But so, too, will Brexit. If the Government can convincingly argue over the next few months that it really has managed to
‘get Brexit done’ without the tangible disruption that the ‘doomsters and gloomsters’ predicted, then a reshuffle and a ‘reset’ might be enough, especially with the arrival of a vaccine.

Should, however, the UK’s departure from the Single Market and Customs Union turn out to be a much messier affair, prompting seemingly endless rows not just between London and Brussels, but between London and an ever-more assertive Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff, then support for the Conservatives could not so much slip as bleed away — and fast.

Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Brexit-and-Beyond-report-compressed.pdf

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