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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A UK referendum on its net-zero policy?

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

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

Tory climate change sceptics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Materialists vs postmaterialists

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

Materialism and postmaterialism in the UK

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

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

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

Materialism, postmaterialism and party support

Vote Blue, no to Green?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Survival at what price?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘The Keir Starmer Strategy’, Unherd, 30 September 2021.

When I was a kid, growing up in a sleepier town just along the south coast, we’d occasionally go over to Brighton and visit the amusement arcades on and around the city’s Palace Pier. I was hardly a pinball wizard, but I absolutely loved playing it.

Those old enough to remember will recall that there were basically two approaches. You could simply bash the bejesus out of the buttons that controlled the flippers, not worrying too much about what the silver ball hit as long as it hit something, randomly clocking up points in the process. Or you could play things more strategically, working out which bits of the table offered the most points and, using the flippers sparingly and with rather more precision, try to ping the ball in the right direction.

On balance, the second approach may have produced less frenetic fun but it was nearly always more effective: ultimately, after all, you got to play longer and you tended to score more points — sometimes even enough to earn a replay.

And so it is with party leader’s conference speeches. Less can often be more. When you’re on the attack, aim for laconic rather than histrionic. And when you’re setting out your own stall, pointing to just a few special offers and hinting at more to come beats trying to leave your listeners spoiled for choice.

The model for me (at least for a Labour leader) will always be John Smith in Blackpool in 1992, making a speech to a party that was demoralised after its fourth defeat in a row yet just beginning to wonder whether, in the light of the chaos and incompetence displayed by the Major government in the days leading up to the Conference, the Tories were really as unbeatable as everyone had assumed.

The prospect facing Keir Starmer, another former lawyer, as he stood up to address the faithful (and the not-so-faithful) was, then, far from unprecedented.

So did he deliver? Well, maybe not totally. But, to be fair, it was far from the kind of epic fail that Boris Johnson and the Corbynite stay-behinds who did their best to heckle “their” leader were no doubt hoping for. And it may even have left some of those with no skin in the game but whose expectations were low (especially after the pasting Starmer’s 14,000-word magnum opus got from the cognoscenti), pleasantly surprised.

Personality — at least with a big P — remains a problem. As a courtroom lawyer, Starmer, unlike Smith, was never the kind of performer who has the jury eating out of his hands and the audience hanging on his every word. As a politician, nothing’s changed. I’ve never seen him on the dance floor but, as an orator, he has no sense of rhythm. Or, indeed, of tone. A party caricatured as preachy and po-faced could really do with a leader who doesn’t always sound quite so plaintive. I’ve no idea if someone on his staff has sat him down and told him he desperately needs to get some voice coaching, but they should do. After all, it never did Margaret Thatcher any harm.

Instead, Team Keir is clearly still convinced that there’s mileage in marketing their man as the antithesis to Boris — the responsible ying to the PM’s frivolous yang, the guy whose approach (as he himself, like some kind of Checkatrade-approved plumber, put it) is “Down to earth. Working out what’s wrong. Fixing it.”

Hence all the stuff about the good deeds Starmer was doing as a civil rights advocate and a prosecutor while Johnson was fannying around phoning in trivial blah, blah, blah for the Telegraph — all of which also served as a useful reminder to a public that he’s had a job that actually means something outside politics.

It sort of works — but even with a few jokes thrown in (of which the early one comparing hecklers with Tory MPs at PMQs was by far the best, and the best-delivered) — I’m still not sure that’s enough. To take an example, “Level up? You can’t even fill up” actually had the potential to be what passes in politics (a low bar, I admit) as a killer put-down. Coming out of Sir Keir’s mouth, however, it sounded a little leaden and contrived. Likewise, the more assertive and pleasingly alliterative “Get a grip or get out of the way.”

That said, to those who complain that we already know what Starmer got up to before going into politics, it’s worth saying (yet again) that the majority of people out there probably don’t. The same goes for him telling us (yet again) that his dad was a toolmaker and his mum was a nurse. How (and why), for instance, does anyone think so many people in London know that Sadiq Khan’s dad was a bus-driver?

Starmer’s family background shtick did tee up a peroration (“Work. Care. Equality. Security. These are the tools of my trade. And with them I will go to work.”) that was beautifully-crafted for television news. And those of us who complained about how long he was talking for as we watched live need to remember that those clips are all that sensible people (who weren’t) will ever hear.

The sheer length of the speech wasn’t entirely accidental, of course. By affording Starmer space to remind activists of his pukka-working class and NHS background, it made it harder for Labour’s Momentumite irreconcilables to lay into him in the hall — as did asking the always admirable Dame Doreen Lawrence to do his intro. They still had a damn good go, startling those in the broadcast media who, for some strange reason, think Starmer’s the first Labour leader to face a tough crowd — and so made it an integral (but totally disproportionate) part of their packages for the evening and morning news programmes.

Still, Starmer’s long address also gave him the chance to kick the Corbynites where it really hurts by promising never to “go into an election with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government” and (heresy of heresies) to “offer the Conservative party a lesson in levelling up” by listing (to one of the most genuinely striking standing ovations he received) the achievements of the last Labour government — one run by politicians who, like him, believed in “changing lives” rather than simply “shouting slogans”.

The ninety-minute speech also gave Starmer plenty of time to share some eye-catching (if not always entirely persuasive) policies on crime, state education and climate change — future-facing, focus-grouped to be voter-friendly and a retort to those who would otherwise bound to have banged on about a lack of “substance”.

To those of us watching for whom less is more, there was probably too much in there. But to those for whom “more is more” — those who might have taken the first, more frenetic approach to playing pinball down in Brighton all those years ago — that won’t have been a problem.

I’d be prepared to bet that Starmer (who’s three years older than me and so must occasionally have played when he was younger, too) would naturally prefer the second, more careful approach to the game. But this year he tried both. Whether that means he’s a wizard or whether there has to be a twist, we’ll soon find out.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2021/09/the-wizardry-of-keir-starmer/

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‘Labour Conference: Members aren’t quite tearing chunks out of each other but a distinct air of unease remains’, The Conversation, 28 September, 2021.

Getting off the bus and walking to the Brighton Centre, the main venue for this year’s Labour conference, it was hard – impossible even – not to ponder on the pathetic fallacy.

I’m not referring to a party that won only 202 seats in 2019 fooling itself into thinking it stands any chance of winning an overall majority in 2023/24, but instead to the temptation to use the grey-black skies, truly torrential rain and gale-force winds that greeted delegates on Monday morning to convey the mood that had taken hold over the weekend.

Saturday and Sunday, after all, had seen bitterness and bile all around. Arguments raged up and down the seafront. Leader Keir Starmer’s proposal to change party rules for selecting its leaders and deselecting its MPs was the main topic at hand. But a close second came his deputy, Angela Rayner, labelling Conservative ministers “a bunch of scum”.

But then the clouds gradually parted, the sun poked through, and, in spite of a breeze that remained pretty bracing, the promenade became balmy(ish) once again. Had calm miraculously been restored?

Not quite, it seems. The calm after the storm turned out to be the calm before the storm, too. Citing dissatisfaction with the party’s position on the minimum wage, Andy McDonald, a shadow cabinet minister (albeit one few beyond the cognoscenti will have heard of), quit in what he clearly intended to be spectacular fashion. Until then, at least, Labour members weren’t tearing great lumps out of each other, as they regularly used to during Corbyn-era conferences. But this is clearly not yet a party at ease with itself, let alone with the country it aspires to govern – not by a long chalk.

As ever, of course, much of the infighting by the pier is as personal as it is ideological. Many of Labour’s supposedly star players – the kind of politicians who can be guaranteed to pack out a fringe event (proverbial princes over the water Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan, and Angela Rayner herself, for instance) – seem pretty convinced that Labour’s current leader stands little or no chance of leading it to the promised land. They’re equally convinced, of course, that they could do a darn sight better job. Maybe their criticisms of the leadership and of each other are coded enough to be construed (by an optimist anyway) as constructive, but only just.

That makes for an atmosphere that may not be utterly poisonous but that isn’t particularly positive either – especially, I might add, for those of us who’d naively assumed that the mass ranks of mask-wearing Labour MPs we’d seen in the Commons weren’t simply virtue-signalling for the cameras but, unlike their Tory colleagues, were still taking COVID-19 guidelines seriously.

Fat chance, it seems, and the same is sadly true of nearly everyone else down in Brighton. The first three fringes I attended (in windowless rooms, natch) were not only packed but packed with a vast majority of attendees not wearing a face covering. Who knows, perhaps they think socialism is the answer, not just to capitalism, but to coronavirus too.

The feeling of foreboding probably isn’t helped by the ghost-at-the-feast presence of Corbyn, who is still suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party but fully entitled, as a rank-and-file member, to swan around from one shindig to another soaking up the adoration of his forever-fans.

For all that, however, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that what we might term the “suits-to-sandals ratio” has shifted slightly (if by no means decisively) this year in favour of the former. Although, if truth be told and in keeping with the notion of a “political class”, it’s hard to tell among the suits who’s a lobbyist, who’s a think-tanker, and who’s an apparatchik-cum-adviser.

None of this is to take the whole conference thing lightly. This is, as we are constantly and rightly reminded by journalists, one of the few chances that an opposition party gets to showcase itself to a public that otherwise gives virtually no thought whatsoever to the people who (as they see it) spend most of their time criticising the jokers who are running the country without having a clue as to how they would do things differently, let alone better. And, perhaps more importantly, this is Starmer’s first in-the-flesh conference since being elected leader in the COVID-ravaged spring of 2020. Talk this time of the leader’s speech being “make or break” has more than a ring of truth to it.

Things did not start that well for Starmer at this conference – although those of us paying more attention to these things than is strictly healthy will have noted that he actually won approval for most of the rule changes he was shooting for. And I’m not sure McDonald’s walk-out will inevitably make things worse. Indeed, it was so self-evidently an act of showboating sabotage that it may even engender a degree of sympathy for their leader even among some of those who still carry a torch for Corbyn, giving him “permission to be heard” that he otherwise might not have enjoyed.

Whether, however, Starmer can exploit that permission to deliver a show-stopper of his own in his closing speech on Wednesday should soon become apparent in the inevitable plethora of post-conference polling.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/labour-conference-members-arent-quite-tearing-chunks-out-of-each-other-but-a-distinct-air-of-unease-remains-168803

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‘What’s behind the Boris reshuffle?’, Unherd, 16 September 2021.

“When I hear the word culture”, Josef Goebbels is supposed to have said, “I reach for my gun.” Boris Johnson, on the other hand, merely reaches for whoever he reckons will most rub the so-called metropolitan liberal elite up the wrong way.

One would have thought that Oliver Dowden was doing a fairly good job of pursuing the Government’s forever “war on woke”. But obviously not. The reshuffle saw Olive, as the former Statues (sorry, Culture) Secretary (now party co-Chairman) is known to his friends, summarily replaced by the preternaturally plain-speaking Nadine Dorries. She was known by her enemies as the woman who once suggested equal marriage was something which only “metro elite gay activists” aspired to and called Messrs Cameron and Osborne “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”.

Whether Ms Dorries, before accepting his commission, quizzed Mr Johnson on precisely how much he paid when he last popped out for a pint of semi-skimmed is, sadly, not recorded, although, if precedent is anything to go by, we will eventually find out. Indeed, many of the most delicious moments in contemporary histories of recent premierships are provided by their accounts of the often cack-handed attempts of their hapless heroes to inject fresh blood and get rid of dead wood.

Normally, it’s the sackings that afford the most entertainment: May’s “elder sister” slaying of George Osborne is an absolute classic of the genre — not least because it came back to bite her big time when the former Chancellor became editor of the Evening Standard, from which perch he took great delight in proving that revenge is indeed a dish best served cold (and, in his case, that meant very, very cold indeed).

This time around, however, it’s the appointments that are more intriguing. In part, that’s because the reshuffle’s two most obvious victims were (a) long-destined for the chop and (b) not particularly interesting or heavyweight politicians.

It would be hard, for instance, to find many people sad to see Gavin Williamson depart Education after what teachers, students and pupils (not to mention their parents) have been put through during the pandemic. And the now-former Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick (cruelly dubbed “Robert Generic” by his detractors), was better known for bending lockdown rules, greenlighting a Tory donor’s questionable construction project, bunging big grants to towns with Tory MPs, and going on telly to defend the indefensible than he was for building more houses.

Their replacements, however, are rather more interesting. Nadhim Zahawi will, of course, be criticised for having no direct experience of state schooling, but may well be given the benefit of the doubt, at least initially, as a result of his impressive performance as Vaccines Minister and because he’s that most unusual of top Tories – someone with a BSc (Chemical Engineering, UCL) rather than an Oxford PPE.

Even more interesting, is Michael Gove’s move to MHCLG. This is not a ministry normally given to a big-hitter with a reputation (at least among civil servants) for competence as well as the ability to present a parliamentary and Cabinet case.

His appointment suggests – encouragingly – that Johnson realises that he can’t merely give up fundamental planning reform as a bad job and hope the problem goes away. And, while it may be true (Gove’s many fans would even say tragic) that his neo-con worldview and concerns about his reliability (perhaps expressed most shockingly and openly a few years ago by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace) mean Gove is unlikely ever to be awarded one of the great offices of state (Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary), his decision to accept the challenge — which apparently includes converting the PM’s “levelling up” rhetoric into reality – is nonetheless significant.

The test, of course, will be whether he can achieve anything without simultaneously losing friends and alienating people (including voters) – a test he clearly flunked when he was Cameron’s controversial Education Secretary.

But if Gove is something of an ideologue, he has nothing, at least on that score, on Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary — the first Conservative woman (and only the second woman ever) to occupy that post. And in some ways that (plus the fact that the Tory grassroots’ favourite free-market zealot was seen by those who get off on Global Britain as having done well in the International Trade brief) may be half the point.

At the FCDO, Truss has effectively been parked somewhere where her Britannia Unchained, Singapore-on-Thames shtick isn’t going to interfere too much with Boris Johnson’s rather more pragmatic, interventionist, and supposedly One Nation brand of Toryism. Meanwhile, her replacement at DIT, Brexity former International Development Minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, is seen as a reasonably safe pair of hands, although without Truss’s infamous flair for publicity. That said, anyone (can there still be anyone?) dreaming of a trade deal with China on her watch might be well advised invest their hopes elsewhere.

Truss replaces Dominic Raab – surely the most high-profile casualty of this reshuffle, which may seem like an odd thing to say about the new Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor after he was compensated with the formal title of Deputy Prime Minister. But let’s be honest: Franklin Roosevelt’s Veep, “Cactus Jack” Garner famously dismissed the vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”; well, whatever is worth less than warm piss, that’s basically what the office of DPM is worth.

He knows it. Johnson knows it. We all know it. The fact that he was offered it at all is testimony only to the fact that, unlike some of the others who were demoted (Williamson, Jenrik, former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland and the Boris-uber-loyalist, former co-Chairman, Amanda Milling) No 10 couldn’t be entirely sure that Raab would go quietly – or, indeed, remain relatively quiet on the backbenches in the hope of a return to government (or, more likely, a seat in the Lords) in years to come.

Quite what Raab’s fellow lawyers will make of him, however, will be interesting to see. There would seem to be little chance of him going native – he was after all the first Tory during the 2019 leadership contest to promote proroguing parliament as a route out of what was then the Brexit impasse. If anything, they may want to buckle up for a bumpy ride: Raab’s combination of natural aggression and neoliberalism means he may be far more inclined than his predecessor to pick a fight with what he’ll no doubt see as the sector’s “producer groups”.

In the end, however, although we’re bound to be distracted by who’s up and who’s down, perhaps we should pay more attention to three politicians who have stuck around. Priti Patel clearly remains too totemic to shift from the Home Office: even if she can’t stop those migrants coming across the Channel in small boats she can bang on about them like no-one else, helping to ensure no space opens up on the Conservatives’ flank for a post-Farage populist right. David Frost is still what passes for the PM’s brain on Brexit. And Rishi Sunak is not just too popular to move; his reputation as a fiscal hawk (doubtless something he’ll burnish this autumn) also provides some much needed reassurance to the party’s bog-standard backbench Thatcherites that Johnson, for all his strengths as an election-winner, hasn’t led the Tories entirely off the small-state straight and narrow.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2021/09/will-the-reshuffle-save-boris/

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‘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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