‘Covid-19 and the transition period’, UK in a Changing Europe, 19 March 2020.

Last year, some six million people signed a petition on Parliament’s website calling for the revocation of Article 50 and for the UK to remain in the European Union.

But right now, as the covid-19 crisis threatens to overwhelm the country’s capacity to cope on all sorts of levels and yet the government continues (at least officially) to rule out extending the transition period beyond the end of this year, fewer than twelve thousand (at the time of writing) have gone on to the same website to sign a petition calling on them to do just that.

By way of comparison, that’s less than number who’ve signed one calling on the government to ‘make pet theft crime a specific offence with custodial sentences.’

What – apart, of course, from the fact that we’re supposedly a nation of animal lovers – might account for that difference?

The answer’s not immediately obvious. After all – and a YouGov poll supports this – it seems intuitively reasonable to assume that the so-called Remoaners who wanted to stop Brexit last year would be particularly keen to avoid an unduly abrupt end to transition.

As former Chancellor Alistair Darling (someone who knows a thing or two about preventing a crisis turning into a catastrophe) put it, ‘it’s madness to contemplate shooting yourself in the foot on an entirely man-made political decision at a time when you don’t need to do that’. Who knows, even some Leavers may concede he has a point?

Thinking a little harder about why so few people, and particularly so few ardent Remainers, have signed the petition, a number of explanations spring to mind. Most obviously, when it comes to the two petitions we’re admittedly talking about a difference not of degree but of kind.

For Remainers, anyway, last year’s petition was existential – in or out, all or nothing. This year’s can do little more than postpone the inevitable. As such, it’s clearly less likely to ignite the passion of your average Europhile.

And then there’s the fact that last year’s petition ultimately made no difference. ‘If the government didn’t allow over six million signatures to change its mind’, some will ask, ‘then what’s the point’?

Sure, after any petition gathers over one hundred thousand signatures it is considered for a debate in parliament. But that debate happened, and made no difference.

The petition to delay transition reached ten thousand signatures on the night of 17/18 March, which means that, while it has a way to go to reach the threshold for debate, it does at least require a response from government – one that should (in normal times anyway) come within 21 days.

But as the Hansard Society’s Brigid Fowler has pointed out, there is nothing to stop said response saying anything more than ‘s.33 EU (WA) Act 2020 makes UK government agreement to a transition extension unlawful.’

Most people won’t have a clue about that of course. But they probably don’t have to in order to be sceptical as to whether a government response will achieve much in the way of concrete action.

Another possibility is that people reckon that said extension is going to happen anyway. It makes such obvious sense in the circumstances – and, if they’re fans of the always impeccably well-informed Peter Foster  – they may have read that some in the government are strongly hinting at just that.

Persuasive? Not totally – and not just because the entire population don’t read Peter’s tweets, even when they so obviously should do. After all, the same air of inevitability surrounded the government’s decision on 18 March to close schools.

Of course, few if any of those who signed that petition were likely to have worried that it might spark a counter-reaction – something that could perhaps be a concern among those who’d like to see the transition extended but fear that actively campaigning for it might mobilize Brexiteer opinion against it.

All a bit reminiscent of a victim of coercive control treading on egg-shells lest they set off their angry other-half, but similarly understandable perhaps.

The same consideration might be preventing high-profile, pro-European politicians supporting the postpone petition, as they did on the Article 50/Remain one last year, and therefore failing to provide an important cue for ordinary folk to go sign it.

And those same politicians might also be (equally understandably) worried that adding their voice to the cause might see them accused of politicising the covid-19 crisis – an accusation that no sensible person in public life wants to have to face right now.

But, in the end, perhaps, none of the above explanations trump the most obvious one – namely that none of us right now can really think of anything much else than the immediate threat posed by covid-19.

As a result, the end of transition (assuming we’re aware in the first place that Brexit’s not really ‘done’ without it ending) seems – quite wrongly of course – a very long way away indeed.

An earlier version of this post was published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/covid-19-and-the-transition-period/

 

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‘Level up: Boosting the regions might mean levelling down London’ (with Phil Cowley), CityAM, 12 March 2020.

Except for updates on the coronavirus, no ministerial appearance these days is complete without mention of the government’s professed intention to “level up”.

This seems to mean a desire to do something — usually something to do with infrastructure spending — for the so-called “left-behind” places that voted Leave in 2016, and especially those “red wall” seats that flipped to the Conservatives at last year’s General Election. As a concept, it might be wonderful. As a phrase, it can grate a little — especially after its near constant repetition.

And yet, we have to admit, albeit through gritted teeth, it is quite clever. It conveys the impression that things are great in most parts of the country, and that all that’s needed to ensure the milk and honey flows to each and every corner of the land is a bit of long-overdue TLC from a government that, unlike its predecessors, really “gets it”.

Voters, though, may be more sceptical. Most of us tend to be wary of the idea that you can get something for nothing. Indeed, after being told for years — especially by the Tories — to think of the government’s accounts in terms of household finances, it would hardly be surprising if people see spending in zero-sum terms.

If you’re not raising taxes, and you say that you don’t want to borrow too much more, then additional spending in one area presumably has to come at the expense of spending in another.

And that area may well be London, given that we’ve also been told for years how much better funded Britain’s biggest city is than other parts of the country, especially in terms of transport and other infrastructure, than other parts of the country. Any sustained effort to reduce regional inequalities may well cost the capital some of the alleged government largesse that it has been used to recently.

That, at least, is the fear of many of London’s council leaders and politicians — hence the recent cries of pain from London Councils, the body representing the capital’s 32 boroughs and the City of London, and the think tank Centre for London. Peter John, chair of London Councils, even warned that ambitions to level up the country could easily descend into what he called “a crude ‘level London down’ agenda”.

But what do Londoners think? At the Mile End Institute, part of Queen Mary University of London, we decided to test whether that assumption is shared by the city’s inhabitants — and whether they thought that London losing out as a result of levelling up was or wasn’t acceptable. Our survey ran just last week and involved a representative sample of 1,002 Londoners.

On the whole, the capital’s residents can see what is coming. They are fairly (some would say surprisingly) resigned to the fact that levelling up will indeed see London receive less government money than in the past.

A third of them (33 per cent) confess that they don’t know, but that leaves almost half (44 per cent) who believe London will lose out — twice as many as the 22 per cent who believe it won’t.

This belief is shared by almost all demographic groups — men, women, working-class, middle-class, white, black and minority ethnic, and those living within inner and outer London. There is some difference by age: younger Londoners are less sure that the city will lose out, older ones more sure. But even among the young, more think London will suffer than not.

And yet, people don’t seem overly concerned about this. When we asked whether it would be a problem if London lost out on government funding, a full 43 per cent said that it would be acceptable, compared to just 31 per cent who thought not.

Again, this view — call it altruism, call it simple resignation, call it what you will — is widely shared regardless of demographic differences, although older voters are less keen.

Of course, it’s one thing to say that you think you might lose out on something and that you don’t mind too much if you do, and quite another to know how you will actually feel about it when it happens. As Joni Mitchell famously put it, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

But for the moment, if the Johnson government feels that it needs to spend less on London in order to help poorer parts of the country, then it doesn’t look like it will face too much resistance.

Originally published at https://www.cityam.com/level-down-london/

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‘Poll reveals tensions in new Tory coalition’, Unherd, 11 March 2020.

One of the downsides of doing surveys is that — more often than not, and certainly more often than you’d like — they end up pointing to the bleedin’ obvious. You know: ‘Poll reveals people like free stuff, hate politicians’ – that sort of thing. File under No Shit Sherlock, right?

Well not entirely. There’s often value in providing evidence for something we all guess is probably true but couldn’t really prove is actually the case.

That’s what emerges from some new pre-budget polling conducted by Portland. They compared the views of five hundred senior business people with a thousand people who voted Tory in 2019, with the latter evenly divided between those living in constituencies where a majority of voters supported Leave or Remain back in 2016.

The results are a neat showcase of the political tensions within the new Tory coalition.

Across the majority of questions relating mainly to the economy, there wasn’t much of a difference between 2019 Tory voters whether they lived in places like Bolsover or Beaconsfield. But there were some pretty sizable contrasts between those voters and Business people — defined, by the way, as a director or senior manager working in a private sector organisation employing more than 250 people and with an income of above £70,000 per annum.

As Portland’s Nick Hargrave puts it: ‘While Business wants government to get out of the way — a majority of Conservative voters across the board want the Government to tax more, spend more and intervene more.’

No great surprise there, but interesting, nonetheless – not least because it rather confirms what many of us suspected.

We’re told anyway that the government ‘gets it’ — namely that it understands that one of the messages coming out of the 2016 referendum was that things have to change, especially for people in those parts of the country characterised as ‘left-behind’.

The poll suggests that business hasn’t yet woken up to this brave new world — one in which neoliberalism is apparently about to give way to an activist enabling state. Putting it bluntly, Boris may be about to ‘fuck business’ but business clearly isn’t looking forward to the experience.

Dig a little deeper, and some additional strains begin to appear not just between Business, on the one hand, and the Government’s voters, on the other, but between Beaconsfield and Bolsover, too.

On public spending and whether it’s too high, a plurality of business people (45 per cent) think it is; Conservative voters are rather less inclined to think so — and there’s an appreciable gap between the 37 per cent of those living in Remain constituencies and the 29 per cent of those living in the land of leave.

But it’s on immigration that the difference between Beaconsfield and Bolsover is most striking. Like business people (again), only around a quarter of Conservative voters in Remain constituencies (23 per cent) put immigration in their top three most important issues — compared to getting on for half (44 per cent) of Conservative voters living in Leave seats.

And when it comes to the question of whether the government should (as it claims) reduce low-skilled immigration, the gap is similarly yawning. As a whole, some three quarters of 2019 Tory voters want that to happen, with only a quarter opposed. But the proportion of those opposed to the idea rises to a third (33 per cent) of those living in Remain constituencies and drops to just well under a fifth (15 per cent) when we look at those in Leave Seats.

Those differences aren’t of course merely geographical, they are ideological and almost certainly intersect most strongly with further and higher education. But they matter — and may matter more if consequent labour shortages begin to make life awkward for some but not noticeably better for others.

Keeping hold of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ while preserving the Tories’ traditional grip on those parts of the country which are not only more comfortably off but also more comfortable with cultural change and diversity won’t be a piece of cake — or, indeed, one that Boris Johnson can necessarily have and eat it too.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/thepost/poll-reveals-tensions-ahead-in-tory-coalition/

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‘Wash your hands, Big Brother is watching you’, Times, 9 March 2020.

Prepare to be disgusted, seriously disgusted. But don’t worry, it’ll do you good, especially now that we’re all being urged to do our bit in the battle against coronavirus. Trust me, I’m a doctor.

OK, I’m not a real doctor. I haven’t got a medical qualification, only a PhD. And, OK, it’s in political rather than proper science.

I can, however, claim a degree of expertise in what I’m talking about — all of it gained from over half a century of painstaking observation of men’s toilet habits.

I tend not to waste too much time in the gents but this is the important bit – I never, ever leave without washing my hands.

It’s that last bit that makes me unusual, at least among men, according, that is, to a survey five years ago that suggested fewer than four out of ten men washed their hands after going to the toilet — a figure that rose to six out of ten for women.

These are not the only statistics available, it should be said. A Gallup survey of 64,000 respondents worldwide paints a slightly more optimistic picture, at least if you’re British.

Only 50 per cent of Dutch people surveyed said that they wash their hands compared with the super-clean Saudis at 94 per cent and 75 per cent of Britons (a figure, incidentally which puts us just about on a par with the Irish and the Americans).

Saying we do something, however, is not the same as actually doing it. What survey researchers refer to as “social desirability bias” — our tendency to give the responses we think we should be giving them rather than the ones that truly reflect our behaviour or opinions — makes it unlikely that three-quarters of us are actually doing what both personal and collective hygiene demands.

Indeed (and here’s where the half-century of participant observation comes in), I’d like to call (bull)shit on that figure here and now. I’ve seen what men do after they’ve zipped up or, even worse, done what my grandmother would have called “their business”. And it isn’t pretty. Many, maybe even most, blokes head straight for the door, after which, they’re presumably shaking your hand, giving you back your change, serving you food, etc.

Of course, actually getting out of said door in many cases involves pulling at some kind of handle. This is a nightmare for those of us who do observe the post-pee and/or pooh niceties, unless it’s wintertime and we’re carrying gloves or maybe wearing an overcoat with helpfully long sleeves.

It’s also the reason why, last week, a health information campaign featuring a dirty door handle was chosen after tests showed that 96 per cent of people remembered it, compared with 85 per cent recalling one that advised them simply to wash their hands. “Information works on a cognitive level. But disgust works on an emotional level,” a source (presumably not a source of infection) told The Times last week.

But are there more positive nudges that could be used in the battle to persuade us to do the right thing? Probably yes.

In an academic article, kindly provided me by a fellow Tweeter, the researchers not only confirm that a substantial minority of people (especially men) don’t wash their hands after using the loo but also take us through why it’s hard to get precise data on the topic, university ethics committees being unsurprisingly unenthusiastic about proposals that suggest setting up CCTV in the spaces in question.

More importantly, not least because more handwashing appears to reduce levels of respiratory illnesses by over a fifth, they explore some simple and cheap (in the best sense of the word) tricks and techniques to get us to wash our hands drawn from behavioural psychology and economics.

So what works? Believe it or not putting a decal of a pair of eyes on the mirror above the sinks has an effect: the fact that Big Brother (or sister) is watching you, and, what’s more, you know they’re watching, isn’t always a bad thing, perhaps.

If you’re not keen on surveillance, however, then try citrus as an alternative. Sprayed intermittently around the sink, it too appears to raise rates of handwashing.

And finally, lines of large, red, arrow-shaped stickers directing you, along the floor, from the stalls and the urinals to the sink, also encouraged people to do what’s good for them and what’s good for the rest of us, too.

You may laugh. Indeed, let’s hope you do. After all, you’re more likely to remember something funny than something purely factual conveyed with a wagging finger. But this is also serious stuff and with incidences of Covid-19 on the rise daily, we’re talking deadly serious.

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‘Research with party members offers an important clue about how to heal Brexit divisions’, The Conversation, 5 February 2020.

Anyone wanting to understand post-Brexit Britain should make a beeline for a report published towards the end of last year by The Policy Institute at King’s College London. It draws a crucial distinction between two modern phenomena. On one hand there is affective polarisation – described in the report as “when individuals begin to segregate themselves socially and to distrust and dislike people from the opposing side, irrespective of whether they disagree on matters of policy”. On the other is issue polarisation – “the difference in values and attitudes on one or more issues”.

After sifting the survey evidence, the report’s authors find that “people on both sides of the Brexit vote dislike the opposing side intensely even though they don’t necessarily disagree with their positions on salient issues”.

In other words, while there’s plenty of evidence of affective polarisation, there’s much less for issue polarisation. This provides at least a degree of comfort for those of us who hope the UK can somehow move on from the deeply divisive politics of the past four years.

That’s not to say, of course, that moving on will be easy. And it will, in part, depend on how the nation’s politicos respond in the coming years. As the Policy Institute’s report notes: “voters to some extent take cues from party platforms and leaders, so polarisation among political leaders and activists can spread to the electorate.”

And that’s what makes the views of Britain’s rank-and-file party members important. While they don’t necessarily directly determine the tone and the direction their parties take, they do have an indirect and sometimes pretty immediate influence on them.

Witness, for example, how the slow growth of hard euroscepticism within the Conservative party eventually went on to have such dramatic consequences for the nation.

Don’t forget either that members also constitute the on-the-ground sales force for their parties. Because they interact on the doorstep with the public as well as with politicians, what they think, say and do about the UK’s relationship with the European Union really can matter. That’s especially the case as the nation decides what it wants its future relationship with Europe to look like.

Even partisans agree on some things

Over Christmas and the New Year, the Party Members Project, run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, asked the members of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist and Green parties (plus registered supporters of the Brexit Party) a couple of key questions about the UK/EU relationship.

The first touches on what, if you like, is the broad-brush future relationship between the UK and the EU. It shows a high degree of polarisation – and perhaps affective polarisation – between what are effectively two tribes.

Irreconcilable viewpoints? ESRC Party Members ProjectAuthor provided

On one side of the divide, Tory members and Brexit Party registered supporters are both overwhelmingly in favour of a more distant relationship. On the other, you have those who belong to Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens. They are even more overwhelmingly in favour of close alignment between the UK and the EU.

This would suggest that the country isn’t about to heal its Brexit divisions any time soon. But before we descend into total despair, it’s worth turning to the second question we asked. That’s because it’s a reminder that people – even highly partisan people – become less polarised when you ask them about specifics.

That’s even true for immigration – often a subject that plays into the “culture wars” narrative. We asked whether European nationals should be treated differently from people from elsewhere in the world when it comes to post-Brexit immigration.

Finding unity wherever we can. ESRC Party Members ProjectAuthor provided

While the two tribes are still pretty divided, there is far more overlap between parties on this second question than on the first one. Many members from the left-liberal parties are actually in agreement with Conservatives and Brexit Party supporters in wanting everyone to be treated the same. They might be said to come at the question from different viewpoints, but they still find some common ground, at least.

These findings at least give us a hint at how the UK might go about trying to heal divisions. Instead of focusing on Brexit identities and the big picture, it may be that people should move as soon as possible to talking about the myriad specifics that need sorting out. Now the UK has left the EU, the nation can best create a wider consensus on how to move forward by building on the fact that there’s much less that separates people on individual issues than separates them emotionally.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/research-with-party-members-offers-an-important-clue-about-how-to-heal-brexit-divisions-131161 

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‘What does Brexit mean for the UK’s party system?’, New Statesman, 5 February 2020.

The 2019 general election gave the UK’s party political kaleidoscope one heck of a shake. Only time will tell where the pieces will eventually settle – if, indeed, they settle at all. Still, we can make out at least some parts of the emerging pattern.

That task seems easiest when it comes to the colour blue – but perhaps only superficially. Boris Johnson managed to win the kind of overall majority that would have been beyond the Conservative Party’s wildest dreams just six months ago. At the European Parliament elections in June last year it polled less than ten per cent of the vote for the first time in living memory.

Just as importantly, it looks as if the winner of those European elections, the Brexit Party, now poses little threat to the Tories’ hegemony on the right of British politics. But no one should be so foolish as to write off Nigel Farage. If the UK’s political entrepreneur par excellence follows through on his plan to set up his Reform Party, then it could, given what is still widespread populist discontent with Britain’s political class, gain some traction – particularly if Brexit hits the economy hard and, or isn’t seen to change much.

At that point, however, a renewed insurgency on the populist radical right might be the least of the prime minister’s worries, since he may find that at least some of the new Tory intake, rather than constituting a cushion against the Brexiteer ultras who did for both Cameron and May, will join the ERG rather than provide an insurance policy against it.

If, then, the government finds itself facing a cliff-edge this summer, with the ERG demanding ‘a clean break’ and the rest of the parliamentary party understandably panicking about the prospects of ‘No Deal 2.0’, the Conservative Party, far from leading the country into a new golden age, could find itself even more split in 2020 than it was in 2019.

That said, there is at least a reasonable chance that a mixture of gratitude to Johnson and skilfully-employed parliamentary patronage may win the day, freeing up the headspace and time the Conservatives need to address a couple of long-term questions – namely, how do they win back so-called Tory Remainers (namely those voters who have shifted over to the Liberal Democrats) and how, without abandoning the party’s commitment to a smaller, less regulatory and less active state, do they satisfy those voters in the so-called Red Wall seats and make the realignment of 2019 permanent.

As for the other pieces of the party-political kaleidoscope, the yellow part of the pattern also seems reasonably predictable. For the SNP, any disappointment at being unable to stop Brexit was mitigated (some might even say trumped) by the opportunity it now has to insist that the Tory government in London cede Scotland a second independence referendum. Indeed, the more minimalist the deal Johnson ends up negotiating with Brussels, in some ways the better for the Nationalist cause.

Sure, the 47 SNP MPs in the Commons will take an eagle-eyed interest in the details of that deal. But their main focus will be on whipping up support for the party in advance of the 2021 elections to Holyrood, knowing that a big win on a manifesto calling for a referendum will put huge pressure on Westminster and Whitehall to grant what will at that point look to many voters (in all parts of the UK) as their wholly legitimate right to self-determination. Whether the Conservative Party really would stick to its current refusal to contemplate giving the Scots another chance to break it apart, is a moot point.

As for the other nationalist (and, in the case of Northern Ireland, unionist) parties they, too, will be focused as much on their own political institutions as on the consequences of any deal (or lack of one) for their economies. They remain, of course, a part of the pattern formed by the party political kaleidoscope – but not, perhaps, as important a part as when the DUP supposedly (and, as it turned out, only supposedly) had the Conservatives by the proverbial short and curlies in the wake of the 2017 election.

The penultimate – orange or yellow – part of that pattern will also be less important than many might have forecast last year. The Lib Dems returned only 11 MPs – the significantly increased number of second-place finishes they racked up providing precious little consolation for expectations dashed. Quite where they go from here is not clear. A new leader – possibly the newly-pansexual Layla Moran – could help turn things around. But perhaps the best advice would be to go back to their constituencies and prepare for (local) government.

Finally, we turn to the most unpredictable, red, part of the pattern formed by the post-election party political kaleidoscope. The fortunes of the Labour Party would seem to depend hugely on the result of its leadership contest, with the winner to be announced in March.

Should Labour plump for some kind of continuity-Corbyn candidate, then, in the minds of the moderate bulk of the party’s MPs at least, all hope of a swift recovery (indeed any recovery at all) may be lost. Their consequent despair could (again, ‘could’ not ‘will’) perhaps prompt enough of them (namely a sufficient number to allow them to become Her Majesty’s Opposition) to set up a new centre-left party (perhaps absorbing the Lib Dems) to see it succeed where Change UK (remember them?) failed so miserably.

If, on the other hand, Labour ends up picking a more obviously voter-friendly candidate like the current front-runner, Keir Starmer, then its long-term (if not necessarily its short-term) prospects are possibly a little brighter – especially if the party can be made to realise that it has to be more than a trade union-based pressure group for the poor, the public sector, and the ‘woke’.

Even then, much will depend on how Labour’s new leader handles Brexit. The key will presumably be to make it clear to the electorate – as Starmer, to be fair to him, already has – that Labour now accepts that we have left and that the focus now has to be on holding the government to account for whatever comes next.

Precisely what that will be, will gradually become clearer after 31 March. Whatever, it is is unlikely to make for plain sailing for any of the UK’s political parties. The kaleidoscope may end up being shaken once again – and sooner than we think.

Originally published at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/02/what-does-brexit-mean-uks-party-system

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‘We asked Labour members why their party lost. Here’s what they said’, LabourList, 3 February 2020.

Last week saw reports of a couple of internal takes on why Labour lost the general election. In a report circulated to the national executive committee by the party’s election co-ordinators and leaked to the FT’s Jim Pickard, most of the blame was put not on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and Labour’s left-wing manifesto but on its difficulties in dealing with Brexit and an incredibly hostile media. Meanwhile, earlier in the week, the Guardian’s Kate Proctor was given sight of some of the thousands of submissions by ordinary party members to the Labour Together review commission, which included complaints about “gimmicky policies, horrible inefficiency and factional promotions”.

The commission is still taking submissions. It is unlikely to be in a position to fully analyse and publish those survey responses until the spring, at which point it will be fascinating to see how much of gap there is between members’ views on why Labour crashed to its worst defeat since 1935 and what the voters themselves have told survey researchers.

Before then, however, we can get an insight into that question by exploring the responses of party members to a survey conducted by the ESRC-funded Party Members Project (run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University) of 1,353 members a couple of weeks after the election. The survey created bit of a splash at New Year when it suggested that Keir Starmer had a pretty convincing lead over his rivals in the leadership race. But its main purpose this time around – along with surveys of members of other parties – is to look at campaigning.

In the course of the survey, we asked a few questions that give an insight into Labour members’ takes on why the party did so badly. The most revealing is probably the one that asked: “If you had to name one thing that went wrong for the Labour Party during the general election campaign, what would that be?”. Rather than forcing respondents to choose from a pre-prepared list, the question allowed them to write in whatever they thought, albeit obliging them to simplify and prioritise.

Write-in responses, of course, are rather harder to analyse. As the commission will no doubt discover, the exercise takes a heck of a lot longer than you hope it will and inevitably involves a degree of interpretation. Moreover, some responses are just so idiosyncratic that they simply can’t be convincingly coded. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to discern some significant overall patterns, so here goes.

Let’s start with explanations that were offered only by a very small minority of the party’s rank and file, perhaps contrary to some of the media stereotypes of Labour members. Doubtless a number of right-wing commentators will be delighted to hear that some members blame the party’s defeat on the fact that votes are stupid, gullible, ignorant, and even moronic (all terms that were actually used). But responses like that represent only a tiny minority – less than 1%.

The number who blame antisemitic smears runs to less than a handful. The proportion who blame the defeat primarily on the fact that, in one member’s words, “Blairites and centrists tried to destroy us because they are spoilt children who won’t accept democracy” was higher. But, at just 2%, it is nevertheless relatively insignificant.

Interestingly, some 7% of members put the blame for defeat mainly on an overambitious manifesto and message that, broadly speaking, they believed lacked realism, focus, coherence and clarity. This dovetails with the critique already coming from some seasoned election-watchers both inside and outside academia: there is little point offering a bunch of policies that are relatively popular in isolation but that voters don’t trust can be implemented.

Post-election polls also point to Jeremy Corbyn rather than Brexit as being the biggest single barrier to people voting Labour – and it’s clear that some members agree. 18% think he was the party’s biggest problem. Nowhere near the number when you get when you ask voters (43%) – but one in five members thinking that the leader was the most important factor in their party’s defeat is not to be sniffed at.

From there we go to the biggest single reason put forward by Labour members for the party’s stunning defeat. One third of Labour’s rank and file told us that, if there was one thing to blame, it was Brexit. Frustratingly (such is the lot of survey researchers), it isn’t possible to be certain whether this is because they believe Labour should have been more pro-Leave or more pro-Remain. 33% who blame Brexit includes 28% whose stance on it can’t be allocated into one camp or another. Only 1% and 4% respectively clearly believe either that the party lost because it didn’t adopt a stronger pro-Remain position or because it backed a second referendum and failed to support getting out of the EU.

It is worth, noting, however, that a fair few of those who blame Brexit yet aren’t perceptibly pro or anti make the point that it was the party’s indecision and lack of clarity on the issue that was the problem.  Again, this accords with the view of election experts, like my UK in a Changing Europe colleague, Sir John Curtice, who argues that, yes, this was a Brexit election but that it was won by the party that clearly chose a side and lost by the party that failed to do so. The Conservatives managed to bring onside nearly all of those Leave voters who voted either for them or for the Brexit Party at the EP elections in 2019. They also hung on to plenty of Tory Remainers who just couldn’t contemplate a Corbyn government. Labour lost a whole bunch of Leavers but failed to bring together Remain voters, far too many of whom defected to the Lib Dems.

But if Brexit is the most popular explanation for what went wrong among Labour’s grassroots members, the second most popular is equally interesting because, possibly unlike Brexit, it’s an ongoing problem. Almost a quarter of Labour members – 23% – appear to hold what they see as an inherently biased media (both print and broadcast) most responsible for the party’s defeat – or as one put it: “Tory funded MSM lies and misleading articles and campaigns along with daily lies and propaganda on Tory owned main TV channels starting with the BBC!”.

While it may be tempting to dismiss this as paranoid or delusional, research from Loughborough University suggests that under Corbyn, Labour did indeed receive very negative coverage, at least in the press, compared to the Tories. That said, this is something that the party can probably do little about – in opposition anyway and probably even in government, given that the UK is a liberal democracy. The only recourse may be to choose a more voter-friendly leader and policy platform. Only a couple of months to go before we see if that proves possible.

Originally published at https://labourlist.org/2020/02/we-asked-labour-members-why-their-party-lost-heres-what-they-said/ 

 

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