‘Boris Johnson’s Cabinet is more heavyweight than you think. The bootlicking incompetents at today’s top table might look better tomorrow’, Prospect, 27 August 2021.

The idea that the Cabinet is chock-full of brain-dead non-entities is a charge levelled with increasing frequency of late. But it is nothing new—anyone of a certain age can remember a 1980s Spitting Image sketch. Margaret Thatcher is dining out with her colleagues and orders steak, wherein the waitress asks “What about the vegetables?” and she replies, “Oh, they’ll have the same as me.”


Yet, in retrospect, some of those then around the table can hardly be written off as bootlicking political lightweights: Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson were responsible for huge changes to the structure and running of the British economy; Leon Brittan helped see his boss safely through the miners’ strike, as well as steering 1984’s landmark Police and Criminal Evidence Bill onto the statute book; Norman Fowler spearheaded the bill to make seatbelts compulsory, and persuaded Thatcher to take educating the public about Aids seriously—policies that saved many thousands of lives.


True, in the light of Dominic Cummings’s revelations about how government actually works (or doesn’t work) under Boris Johnson, it may be a little difficult to believe that, as the Cabinet Manual puts it, the Cabinet is “the ultimate arbiter of all government policy.” And, as always, there are amateurish ministers like Gavin Williamson and those who seem to blunder from one day to the next.


However, it remains the case that, in their own fiefdoms at least, the barons may well have no less (and, given the prime minister’s notorious lack of interest in the detail, possibly more) authority than the king.


One such is surely Michael Gove, who, by dint of his position in the Cabinet Office, is responsible for the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill that will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, as well as the even more controversial Elections Bill, whose voter ID provisions will, say its critics, effectively disenfranchise millions of voters.


Other barons include, for good or ill, home secretary Priti Patel and communities secretary Robert Jenrick, responsible for bringing in what could be historic changes to this country’s immigration and planning regimes respectively.


And then, of course, there’s Sajid Javid and the smooth, sure-footed Rishi Sunak, both of them involved in an increasingly epic love-hate triangle with Johnson. Cummings’s hopes that No 10 could assert control over the Treasury now seem pretty forlorn, and the chancellor’s forthcoming Budget update in October looks likely to set the tone on tax and spend for the rest of the government’s term. Meanwhile his predecessor, newly returned to the top table, is clearly in a good position to demand sufficient resources for a major Health and Care Bill, as well as for the long-awaited reform to social care.


The Cabinet as a collective, then, may not count for much these days. But it still contains a bunch of biggish beasts, with to-do lists to match.

Originally published at https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/boris-johnsons-cabinet-is-more-heavyweight-than-you-think-gove-sunak-patel-government

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‘Give them a future too’, Mirror, 1 August 2021

IT’S been obvious for weeks now that the vaccine take-up rate for younger people hasn’t been what it needs to be to reduce the chances of Covid making a serious comeback after the summer.

So the Government should get some credit for thinking outside the box and coming up with attention-grabbing incentives to get them jabbed. And it’s a win-win for the companies involved – they get some excellent publicity for doing their bit for a really good cause. Let’s hope then that it does the trick.

But let’s also hope this eye-catching initiative isn’t going to be the limit of the Government’s offer to young Brits.

After all, they’ve arguably been hit harder than most of us by the pandemic.

Whether we’re talking about the impact on their education, their jobs, or simply the freedom to go out and enjoy themselves.

As a result, they have a right to expect a whole lot more in the long term than a handful of vouchers for rides and pizza. Young people are literally this country’s future. Gimmicks are great.

But what they really need- and deserve – from the Government is a far-sighted and properly funded post- Covid recovery plan.

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‘The Truth About the Blue Wall’, Unherd, 2 August 2021.

If an American tells you that they’re “Waiting for the other shoe to drop”, they mean that, having had one piece of news, they’re expecting another piece pretty soon. The idiom apparently originated in New York where the residents of the city’s tenements could hear their upstairs neighbour kicking off, first, one shoe and then, inevitably, after a second or two, the other.

Ever since the shock win for the Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham back in June, many on the centre-Left have been waiting for something equally arresting to confirm that it wasn’t a one off, and that the Tories might be in as much trouble in some of their southern heartlands as Labour are in the north.

But is YouGov’s eye-catching Blue Wall poll really that other shoe dropping? And even if it is, isn’t it more a faint echo than a darn great thud?

That the Conservatives are losing support in some of their seats which heavily backed Remain in 2016, and where over a quarter of residents hold a university degree, actually shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

After all, the flip side of the electoral analyst James Kanagasooriam’s observation that there were Labour seats where voter demographics (and values) meant they could easily turn Tory was always that the Conservatives should expect to lose a few seats, too. In fact, one could almost argue that it was always going to be a matter of when, not if.

It could even be that Covid is speeding the process up. The Government’s recent responses to both the ping- and pandemic have once again given people the impression that (a) it doesn’t really know what it’s doing, and (b) there’s one rule for it and one for the rest of us. Added to which, the search for space among relatively affluent city dwellers may be leading to the surrounding outer suburbs and small towns welcoming younger, better-educated and more socially liberal voters

Chesham and Amersham may be just the kind of constituency they are moving to. But if that formerly true-blue stronghold is in play, then so are a bunch of home-counties seats, although most of those are rather more vulnerable to the Lib Dems than to Labour.

Labour appears to be doing better, with its support rising four points from 20% to 24%. But if you’re excited about those numbers, then it probably says more about you than it does about them. A score of 20% doesn’t even merit the label “low base”. It wouldn’t even come close to what the party would need to pull off an unlikely victory in a classic three-way marginal. In 2019, there were just 11 English seats which had a vote-share gap between first and third place of less than 20 percentage points, and even among those the lowest winning vote share (Labour’s in Sheffield Hallam) was 34.6%.

To be fair, YouGov reckons that: “If the swings were uniform across all constituencies, Labour would be set to gain a total of nine Blue Wall seats, and the Liberal Democrats three.” However, if you look carefully, four of those Labour wins would be in London (Chipping Barnet, Chingford, Hendon and Kensington) and only one (Wycombe) is in what most analysts would think of as the “real” Blue Wall (the others being Milton Keynes North, Stroud, Truro and Falmouth, and one of the Bristol seats).

And anyway, as YouGov goes on in the next breath, even if Labour were to gain the seats listed, “it would not be anywhere near enough to offset the party’s losses in the so-called Red Wall in 2019”. The fact remains, as Keir Starmer’s new Director of Strategy, Deborah Mattinson (whose book does a great job of helping to explain those losses) has reportedly told Labour MPs: the party still has a long way to go if it is to win over the older, less-educated, and culturally conservative voters it desperately needs to get back in order to stand a chance next time round.

Apparently, she also pointed to polling and to focus group research, in which she specialises, that suggests support for Boris Johnson is waning. It’s also worth remembering that, at the end of last year, before the vaccine roll-out became a reality for most people, the gap between the two parties had narrowed. But even as the nation’s gratitude begins to fade, it remains the case that, nationwide, both the PM and the Conservative Party retain significant leads on the measures that matter — trust on who would best run the economy and who would make the best prime minister.

Sure, there are some worrying numbers for the Tories in the YouGov poll. Some 54% of its Blue Wall respondents disapprove of the Government (the same proportion who say it doesn’t listen to people in their area) – and that’s compared to only 30% who approve. Moreover, 47% think the Government is taking the country in the wrong direction compared to just 32% who reckon it’s taking us in the right direction.

Furthermore, some of the Blue Wall’s decidedly liberal views on cultural questions (for instance, 66% of voters polled by YouGov agree that a wide variety of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures is part of British culture compared to 50% of voters in general and 54% in the Red Wall) might give the Government pause for thought about upping the ante on its ongoing war on woke.

More generally, the fact that 55% think the Conservative Party is out of touch is hardly good news for Boris Johnson — until, that is, you realise that 58% say the same of the Labour Party. And Lib Dems shouldn’t read too much into the fact their score on that metric is 39%: a mere 18% say that they’re in touch.

Ultimately, though, most Conservatives — except perhaps those southern Nimby MPs desperate for ammunition in their battle to prevent their government carrying through meaningful planning reform — won’t (or at least shouldn’t) get too worked up about what the poll purports to tell us about the Blue Wall. This is mid-term: they should expect some serious discontent and dissatisfaction.

In any case, a drop from 52% support in 2019 to 44% support now can be made to sound steep but ultimately, in most of their heartland seats anyway, the worse that’s likely to happen to Tory candidates at the next general election is that they end up having to count the votes rather than simply weigh them.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2021/08/the-truth-about-the-blue-wall/

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‘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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