‘Would a 2017 General Election mean a landslide victory for the Conservative Party? Yes’ CityAM, 20 September 2016

Unless everything we think we know about politics turns out to be wrong, the Tories are going to win the next election. They are way ahead of Labour on both economic competence and best Prime Minister. Just how big that win will be partly depends on when they go to the country. If Theresa May does what any normal politician would do in her position, she will engineer a contest in the spring or early summer of next year – before the compromises she’s going to have to make with Brussels become overly obvious, before the economy begins palpably to slow down, before the continuing squeeze on the NHS makes waiting lists and times even longer – and before Labour can dump Jeremy Corbyn. And even if she waits until 2020, she’ll still win. But if she goes sooner, she stands a chance of achieving the sort of majority that the Conservatives have only been able to dream about for 30 years. Carpe diem!


Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/249762/would-2017-general-election-mean-landslide-victory


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‘David Cameron: The moderniser whose bravery stopped fatally short’, New Statesman, 13 September 2016

Few if any British Prime Ministers have been able to rescue their reputations by publishing their memoirs. David Cameron had better hope he proves one of the exceptions to the rule because, right now, he’s in danger of being written off – and maybe even written out of history. Not just gone, but forgotten.

Certainly Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, seems bent on proving that almost everything he ever did as Tory leader, whether in opposition or in government, might as well have been written in sand. The man who made it his mission when he took over in 2005 to drag the Conservatives (kicking and screaming if that’s what it took) into the 21st century has been replaced by someone seemingly intent on taking the country back to the 1950s – a time before mass immigration, entry into Europe, the decline of the Commonwealth, the abandonment of industrial policy, and the abolition of the eleven-plus ruined everything.

Perhaps it was the reintroduction of grammar schools, rather than the lure of the international lecture circuit or his family’s understandable desire to escape the media spotlight and public scrutiny, that saw him go back on his declared intention to stay on in the Commons. It’s one thing, after all, to follow John Major in refusing to conduct a running commentary on one’s successor, but quite another to remain completely silent as that successor does all she can, albeit with icy politeness, to trash your legacy in her desire to differentiate herself, keep the economy ticking over in the face of an inevitable downturn, tickle her party’s tummy, and maybe mop up what’s left of UKIP following Farage’s departure.

Perhaps it’s no more than Cameron deserves. After all, his willingness to take on the so-called Tory Taliban was always far more limited than he pretended. True, he got gay marriage onto the statute book – although one could argue that it was an idea whose time had come and was realised in spite of rather than because of a majority of Conservative MPs.

But Cameron’s bravery certainly never extended to taking on those MPs and their grassroots supporters on immigration and Europe. Indeed, had he confronted rather than continually appeased them by promising what he could never realistically hope to deliver, he might never have been forced into calling the referendum that led to Brexit – apart, maybe, from the gongs he gave his gang in his resignation honours list, the one thing that he’ll always be remembered for, not just by those of us obliged to live through it but also the proverbial “historians of the future”.

Yet maybe this is unfair. Cameron, after all, can claim with some justification to be one of the electorally successful Tory leaders of all time. He took on a party that had lost – and lost badly – three contests on the trot and was seriously wondering whether it stood much chance of avoiding yet another defeat next time around. The swing Cameron achieved during his four and half-years as leader of the opposition – admittedly with the help of Gordon Brown and the Great Recession – was huge. And while it proved insufficient to give him a majority, it allowed Cameron to demonstrate the lightness of touch and quick-thinking creativity required to coax the Liberal Democrats into a coalition that, played right (and, boy, did he play it right) was always going to destroy them. At the same, he provided the Tories (still Thatcherite after all those years) with the “national interest” cover they required to make unprecedented (and many at the time thought impossible) cuts to the apparently “bloated” state that New Labour had supposedly cemented permanently into place.

Even more incredible – although admittedly Cameron was lucky to be facing a far less fluent, fleet-footed performer across the dispatch box – he and George Osborne managed to push through five years’ worth of (probably unnecessarily harsh) austerity measures and yet, notwithstanding all the much-trumpeted targets missed on the economy and immigration and the absolute mess they helped make of Libya, bag their parliamentary colleagues an overall majority at the next general election. Even better, by holding and winning the first of his three referendums at the height of Nick Clegg’s unpopularity, Cameron killed off the prospect of electoral reform for at least another generation.

All that might not count much to a man who, claiming to be motivated above all by the spirit of public service, aspired to be a statesman. Cameron always looked and sounded the part – especially, it must be said, when dealing with Northern Ireland. Yet it constitutes no mean achievement for what, at heart, he always was – a politician. As such, when defeated, he knew he had to resign the job he loved doing. And who can blame him when, faced with life on the backbenches supporting a woman determined to portray herself as a very different kind of Conservative, he simply couldn’t bear to stick around.


Originally published at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/09/how-much-more-trouble-will-three-brexiteers-cause-theresa-may


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‘Why don’t people vote? You asked Google – here’s the answer’, Guardian 27 July 2016.

For those of us who troop down to the polling station at every election, it can be pretty frustrating that not everybody does the same – especially when we end up with a result we don’t like, and which we reckon might have turned out differently if only they had. It’s not as if it takes much effort and, after all, didn’t people die to win us the right to hold whoever’s in power to account?

Maybe so, but the question is probably best approached – at least initially – by turning round the telescope. Instead of asking why people don’t vote, we might reasonably ask why anyone bothers in the first place. Given that the likelihood of any election being decided by a single vote is so small, especially in contests where the eligible electorate runs into the thousands, it makes little or no sense for any of us to devote our precious time to deciding who to vote for and then casting a ballot in their favour.

This so-called “paradox of voting” has intrigued political scientists – especially those who like to see themselves as belonging to the “rational choice” school – for ages. The answer most commonly arrived at is that those who do turn out must derive some utility, however indirect, from the act of voting.

Perhaps they like to see themselves as good citizens – part, or even pillars, of a community – and therefore feel a warm glow of satisfaction after performing their civic duty. Or perhaps they are ideologues or into identity politics – in which case, the warm glow comes from expressing solidarity with those who share the same ideals or characteristics. Or maybe they just worry that if they don’t go and vote, then who else will?

According to this logic, then, people who don’t vote are those for whom the concepts of community and civic duty don’t mean much. Nor does ideology or some sort of politicised identity – unless of course they cleave to an ideology or an identity that sets itself up in such conscious opposition to the mainstream that voting would be associated with conforming to lame or oppressive conventions. Or maybe – and not unreasonably, given that many people still do go out and vote – they’re not overly worried that their failure to do so will have negative consequences for anybody, not least for themselves.

It doesn’t require much imagination then, to realise that some demographics are less likely to vote than others, and the empirical evidence provides plentiful support for that. Those who don’t turn out often have (or at least feel they have) less of a stake in society, and are people for whom informing themselves about candidates and issues would involve taking an interest in stuff to which they wouldn’t normally pay much attention. We are talking, in other words, about the poor, the poorly educated, the young, the transient, the newly arrived, and the less politically knowledgeable and interested. Worryingly, the gap between such people and the rest has been rising over time as bodies such as trade unions, which used to help close it by encouraging these groups to vote, have declined.

But it’s not all about demography or social and educational status. Indeed, one of the standout findings from comparative research is that, for a mysterious mixture of historical, cultural and institutional reasons, low turnout seems to have become the norm in some countries (the post-communist states of central and eastern Europe, for example), whereas other countries (such as the Nordic states) consistently record high turnout.

People’s willingness to turn out is also contingent on political circumstances. In certain situations even those who might normally vote feel less inclined to do so. If the result of an election looks like a foregone conclusion, then that produces a lower turnout. This also tends to happen if one election is held relatively soon after another. Turnout is similarly depressed if people feel that the differences between the choices on offer are small or that the connection between who makes it into office and the policies they pursue is vague.

The way in which elections are conducted can also make a difference. Perhaps not surprisingly, giving people the chance to vote by post boosts turnout, albeit marginally. Holding elections at weekends and making it easy to register to vote, however late, makes a positive difference too. And proportional representation, while it’s far from being the silver bullet that some of its more starry-eyed advocates claim, may well encourage more people to vote – especially when parties make it clear who their likely coalition partners will be, either during the campaign or before it. That has to be balanced against the fact, however, that the complexity and divided governments that PR sometimes produces may actually discourage less educated and politically interested people from voting.

For those hoping to see developments in digital life transform politics, there is some evidence to suggest that VAAs (Voter Advice Applications, which can be used on a computer, tablet or a phone to tell you which party most closely matches your preferences) may increase turnout among young people, although there is also evidence to suggest that those who consult them and don’t find much of a match are actually put off participating. Voting over the web, which is only really done on any large scale in Estonia, could make a difference in the long-term; but the evidence as yet is far from conclusive.

The most robust finding from research on voting and non-voting, however, is something of a no-brainer: compulsory voting ensures higher turnout. Conventional wisdom says we should ignore this: the right not to vote, it is argued, is as important as the right to do so, and there are fears (largely unfounded, according to research from places like Australia where it is the norm) that obliging people to turn out will lead to frivolous or protest voting.

On the other hand, if non-voting is on the increase, then there could come a point where so few people cast a ballot that the essential legitimacy of the polity is called into question. Moreover, we already know that politicians, needing to win elections, tend to cater to – and even pander to – those who do vote and ignore those who do not. If compulsory voting is what it takes to ensure, to quote Abe Lincoln, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”, then maybe we need to consider it as an option.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/27/why-dont-people-vote-google

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‘As a surge of supporters sign up to vote in the leadership contest, can Owen Smith save Labour? It depends’, City AM, 20 July 2016.

While it’s tempting to ask whether anyone at all can save Labour, this is a question that deserves a serious answer. After all, Owen Smith may be the only man standing between the Labour Party and imminent implosion. The answer, then, depends not only on whether the challenger can beat the incumbent but also on what we mean by “save”. I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of Smith beating Jeremy Corbyn. However, he has a mountain to climb – one made up of hundreds of thousands of members who, for whatever reason, still seem to have faith in their leader. By positioning himself as a left-winger but questioning Corbyn’s competence, and at the same time capitalising on frustration with the latter’s underwhelming performance in the EU referendum, he’s fighting a canny campaign. But even if Smith somehow pulls it off, he won’t save Labour at the next election. Preventing the party splitting may be the best that he can hope for.

Originally Published at http://www.cityam.com/245862/surge-supporters-sign-up-vote-leadership-contest-can-owen


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‘Here’s what we know about Labour’s £3 supporters – and whether they’ll pay £25 to help Corbyn again’, The Conversation, 19 July 2016 (with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb).

Forces on both sides of the Jeremy Corbyn debate are apparently trying to make the most of the 48-hour window within which anyone can register as a supporter of the Labour Party and have a vote in the impending leadership election. Both pro and anti-Corbyn campaignersare hitting the phones and the streets to convince people to pay £25, either to get the current leader out, or keep him in.

The committed Corbynistas of Momentum are apparently doing their best to re-establish contact with people who joined as registered supporters during the last leadership contest at the bargain price of just £3. The aim is to get as many Corbyn backers as possible to pay the increased fee of £25. That way, Momentum hopes, they will deliver another victory for Labour’s sitting leader.

The battle for these £3 supporters is so intense because so little is known about who they are and why they signed up last time. Were they hardline Corbynistas, hard-up party loyalists, or simply troublemakers willing to fork out a few quid to troll Labour? And, just as importantly, what might they do this time?

We surveyed nearly 900 of them a couple of months ago in May 2016, so we thought it would be interesting to take a look at what sort of people they are. Why did they take that cheaper, lower-commitment option rather than going the whole hog and becoming full members of the Labour Party? The answer to this question may, perhaps, tell us something about the £25 supporters who might be clamouring to sign up for a vote now – and whether their interest is good or bad news for Corbyn.

The three quidders

The first thing to say about the £3 supporters is that they weren’t very different from those who joined Labour as full members after the 2015 general election. Although they were slightly more likely to be male rather than female than those who went the whole hog, some 74% fell into the ABC1 category (roughly middle or upper class) and 56% of them were graduates. That’s very similar proportions to full members.

Since they were, on average, 51-years-old, they were also around the same age as the full members. In other words, although high social grade does not necessarily always equate with high social income, the majority of those people are not going to find it too difficult to pay the £25 required to express their support and vote for the leader again.

Owen Smith: also on offer at the new £25 price tag. PA/Andrew Matthews

Interestingly, those who joined as supporters (and remained as such without upgrading, as it were) were slightly less likely to belong to a trade union (17%) than those who joined as members (23%). They were also less likely, ironically enough, to consider themselves members of Momentum (3%) than those who joined as full members (9%). That suggests that Momentum’s ability to get them to pay up again to save Corbyn may be rather more limited than some imagine.

Another difference between those who registered as supporters after the general election and those who joined as full members is that the former were less likely to have voted Labour in 2015 (64% vs 72%) and more likely to have voted Green (19% vs 13%). One reason why they chose a lower level of commitment may well have been because, quite simply, they felt less partisan loyalty toward Labour in the first place. Or maybe they just felt less politically engaged than those who chose to join as full members. Whether Corbyn has upped that level of engagement enough to see them take up the same offer but at a much higher price will be interesting to see.

It is also true – although here we are talking about very fine differences of degree – that those who registered as £3 supporters were ever so slightly less left wing, socially liberal and pro-immigration than those who joined the party as full members.

But, like those full members, this means they were still very left-wing, very socially liberal and very pro-immigration compared with most voters – even most Labour voters. So all in all, if they can be persuaded to re-register to vote in this election – or if the people who register for the first time today and tomorrow are anything like them – that’s likely to favour those hoping to keep Corbyn rather than ditch him.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/heres-what-we-know-about-labours-3-supporters-and-whether-theyll-pay-25-to-help-corbyn-again-62728

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‘Can Theresa May even sell her new conservatism to her own cabinet?’, Observer, 17 May 2016.

Political parties can be frighteningly small worlds, with a cripplingly limited cast of characters. As a result, people whose careers are widely assumed to be over – either because they once messed up badly or because their face no longer seemed to fit – can sometimes make startling comebacks. It is this, and not just an understandable desire to prevent the headbangers crying foul when Brexit negotiations inevitably fail to deliver everything they want, which partly explains the presence of old stagers such as David Davis, Liam Fox and (the pro-European) Damian Green in Theresa May’s new cabinet.

The prime minister’s decision to bring these colleagues in from the cold may have had something to do, too, with friendship and wanting to project the idea that, after a decade of domination by thirty- and fortysomethings from Notting Hill, the grown-ups, with the signal exception of Boris Johnson, are back in charge of the Conservative party.

There may, however, be even more to it than that. Along with the fact that Davis, Fox and Green, like many of May’s younger picks, come from relatively “ordinary” backgrounds, they also incarnate ideological strains and stresses within her party that go back a long way but which, judging by her recent speeches, Theresa May and her advisers are hoping to meld to address contemporary needs and concerns.

The Conservative party that so dominated politics in the 20th century was essentially an amalgam of two 19th-century phenomena. On the one hand, there was Gladstonian liberalism, with its emphasis on “economy”, “self-help” and “free trade”. On the other, there was Toryism, with its stress on empire, national sovereignty and on incrementally improving “the condition of England” for the majority of its citizens, who, it was eventually accepted, would come to play a full (if hopefully not dominant) part in its governance.

For the most part, the tension between the two compounds that made up modern Conservatism proved creative but it was a tension no less, one best personified, perhaps, by Joe Chamberlain, the man many seem to be crediting as an inspiration to Mrs May, or at least to her consigliere, Nick Timothy, himself a working-class native of Chamberlain’s Birmingham. “Radical Joe” it was who crossed the floor from the Liberals to the Conservatives in pursuit of an end to free trade so as to build a wall around the country and its empire behind which more could and should be done for its people when it came to health, education and welfare.

Certainly, anyone looking for an insight into what, who knows, we might eventually end up calling Mayism should make straight for an essay on ConservativeHome written by Timothy back in March. Entitled “What does the Conservative party offer a working-class kid from Brixton, Birmingham, Bolton or Bradford?”, it attempts both to triangulate between but also to criticise the so-called “Soho Conservatism” associated with the Cameroons and the “Easterhouse Conservatism” associated with Iain Duncan Smith.

Liberal conservatism had its upsides, most obviously equal marriage, but also its downsides, notably its early emphasis on green issues and its continued support for free movement, neither of which is apparently of any interest to that much cited category, “ordinary working people”. Compassionate conservatism’s ambition to help the poorest of the poor may have been laudable but left it with little to say to the many people who, while they aren’t exactly on the breadline, can still struggle to make ends meet and get on in life.

Unless, argued the man who is now May’s joint chief of staff in Downing Street, the Tory party could convince people that it really was on their side, it would not only fail to win a comfortable parliamentary majority, it wouldn’t deserve to either. His solution, however, didn’t lie, as it seems to for some of the Tories who co-authored the libertarian manifesto Britannia Unchained, in robotically pursuing Thatcherism to its logical conclusion: Ayn Rand-style, devil-take-the-hindmost neoliberalism.

Instead, the party needed – yes – to champion fiscal responsibility, law and order and public service efficiency. But it also had to realise that, when savings needed to be made, it should look, say, to trim benefits going to wealthy pensioners rather than tax credits going to hard-working families. It also needed to respond effectively rather than simply rhetorically to their concerns about immigration. Tucked away, too, was a suggestion that the Tories should take housing more seriously.

Fast forward to the speech that Theresa May made to launch her leadership campaign in (where else?) Birmingham, as well as the unashamed pitch for the centre she made just before entering Number 10 for the first time as PM, and a plausible case can be made that, rather than simply being the warmed-over, one-nation platitudes we have heard so many times before from new Tory premiers, her words may hint at a more profound shift.

The source of that shift may not be entirely ideational either. It may also be driven, believe it or not, by the evidence. In a column dedicated mainly (and understandably wryly) to observing some of the similarities between May’s words and that advocated by his old boss, Ed Miliband, for whom he wrote speeches, Asher Dresner refers to a growing consensus that fiscal contraction doesn’t, in fact, lead to more sustainable growth. What’s more, even if it did, he added, growth no longer seems automatically to deliver noticeably higher living standards for all; and that it makes an awful lot of sense to borrow to invest in infrastructure and housing when credit is not just cheap but dirt cheap.

But there is one big problem with this optimistic take on what might become Mayism. For it to have any practical impact on public policy, it will, in a government with a working majority of just 16, have to win the support of parliamentary and cabinet colleagues (including two of the three named above), who will be at best ambivalent about and at worst implacably opposed to this new direction.

Liam Fox, for example, was caught on tape, in 2002, speaking about his plans to talk down the NHS to soften it up for privatisation and “self-pay”. Liz Truss and Priti Patel were two of the Britannia Unchained bunch. Chancellor Philip Hammond may have accepted May’s sensible decision to stop chasing George Osborne’s patently unachievable deficit reduction targets but that does not make him an overnight convert to neo-Keynesianism. And while David Davis may have been brought up in a council house, that doesn’t mean he suddenly approves of them. Sajid Javid, who likewise came into politics after state education propelled him from a humble background into an impressive business career, will be responsible for relations with local authorities and isn’t exactly a fan of the enabling state either. Nor is Chris Grayling or Jeremy Hunt. And as for Andrea Leadsom, the less said the better.

Indeed, the only standout pragmatic centrists in the cabinet are Green (a long-standing stalwart of the left-leaning Tory Reform Group and the modernising thinktank Bright Blue); the cabinet’s two PhDs, business secretary Greg Clark (Economics) and ex-Europe minister, now leader of the house, David Lidington (Elizabethan history), and the ex-miner, party chairman Patrick McLoughlin. Clearly, in the case of the first two at least, the departments they run are by no means bit-players. But they are nevertheless in a very small minority in cabinet.

And then there is the party in the country. Research suggests that while they may support Theresa May, aspects of her agenda will attract rather less enthusiasm – and not just because eight out of 10 grassroots Tories are middle class.

Figures from the British Election Study suggest that 72% of voters believe that ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth.

The Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Projectsuggests that only 17% of Conservative party members feel the same. The gap between the public and the Tory grassroots when it comes to the idea that big business benefits owners at the expense of workers is, at 77%-27%, no less marked.

There is one thing on which the public, grassroots Tories, Theresa May, and probably most of her parliamentary colleagues clearly concur – the need to reduce immigration. That, however, only highlights the most glaring contradiction in the new prime minister’s embryonic “-ism”.

Controlling the UK’s borders would go down well with the “ordinary working families” who May says she wants to serve. But if it involves leaving the single market, it will almost certainly make them poorer. Conservatives cannot always reconcile their simultaneous desire for the free economy and the strong state. Which will Mrs May choose?

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/17/theresa-may-new-brand-of-conservatism

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‘Middle-class university graduates will decide the future of the Labour Party’, New Statesman, 14 July 2016 (with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb).

We don’t yet know whether it will be Angela Eagle or Owen Smith, or maybe both of them, who ends up running against Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership.  But what we do know – because we reckon we now know lot about the people who will vote in that ballot – is that any challenger is going to have their work cut out.

We surveyed Labour members just after the 2015 General Election, and then ran a second survey in May this year so we could capture those who joined the party after the election.

Now, for the first time, we’ve put those two surveys together in order to come up with a pen-portrait of those people who, because they were members before the NEC’s February cut-off date, will therefore be eligible to vote over the summer. You can find the more detailed figures here.

Labour’s grassroots members will almost certainly make up the bulk of those who choose the party’s leader over the summer. So what do they look like? And how do they think?

By our reckoning, Labour’s leadership contest is going to be decided, for the most part, by less than 400,000 mainly middle-class university graduates. Nearly half of these members – unlike many of Labour’s voters – live in London and the South of England.  Some 75 per cent of Labour members are ABC1 voters, and 57 per cent of them have a degree.  Around 15 per cent live in London and 32 per cent live in other parts of the South of England.  Only 28 per cent live in the party’s northern heartlands and 20 per cent in Wales and the Midlands, where (think, Nuneaton) any party wanting to win a general election desperately needs to win over voters.

Because a relatively large proportion of those who joined the party after the general election were women, the Labour membership has become a little more gender balanced, with a 55:45 male/female split.  The average age, however, hasn’t changed much: it’s still 51.

That might have something to do with the fact that roughly a third of the post-election joiners had been Labour members previously. Many of them appear to have returned after leaving in the New Labour era. They may possibly have replaced some of those who left the party because they didn’t like the direction it was taking under Corbyn.

Those voting in Labour’s leadership contest are socially very, very liberal. Only 22 per cent believe law-breakers should be given stiffer sentences and only 10 per cent support the death penalty. Some 84 per cent back gay marriage.  They are also very positive about immigration. On a seven-point scale running from immigration being bad for the economy (1) to it being good for the economy (7), they score it at 5.74.  On a similar scale which asks about the cultural benefits of immigration they come up, spookily enough, with exactly the same score.

On economic issues, it’s as if Blair and Brown (or at least the “neoliberal” Blair and Brown of the left’s imagination) never existed. Labour’s grassroots members are almost unanimous in favouring redistribution (92 per cent), in distrusting big business (94 per cent) and in believing that government public spending cuts have gone too far (95 per cent).

Asked to place themselves on a left to right scale running from one to ten, the average Labour member locates him or herself at 2.17.  Nearly one in ten members voted Green in 2015 – something that was notably more common among those who joined the party after that general election. Irrespective of when they joined, however, eight out of ten wanted the UK to remain in the European Union.

When asked what they’re looking for in a leader, Labour’s members are not unduly concerned with a leader’s ability to radiate strength and authority, or his or her capacity to unite the nation. Only around a third of them put a premium on having a leader who can appeal to the average voter. Interestingly, though, this did matter more to those who were already members by the time of the 2015 general election than those who joined after it.

Ultimately, what matters more to Labour members, it seems, is having a leader who, as well as being a good communicator, is in touch with ordinary people and has strong political beliefs – something that is especially true for those who joined after rather than before the last general election.

Whether Jeremy Corbyn or either of his challengers can tick all of these boxes is, we suspect, in the eye of the beholder.  Still, given who Labour members are and how they think, we suspect Mr Corbyn is going to be awfully hard to beat.

Originally published at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/07/middle-class-university-graduates-will-decide-future-labour-party

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