‘Was it the Labour doorstep or the Labour smartphone that swung it for Jeremy?’, UK Election Analysis, 2017, 19 June 2017

Although we need more research before we can categorically confirm that it was ‘the young wot swung it for Labour’ at the General Election, it looks more than possible. And, although their support for Jeremy Corbyn was rooted in more than just tech-savvy campaigning, we can’t afford to dismiss its role in converting youthful enthusiasm into actual votes on the day.

One of the fascinating things about what happened on 8 June is that very few people saw it coming. Election analysts, going on past experience, figured that the young people pollsters managed to sample either wouldn’t bother to turn up on the day or, if they did, would end up simply adding to Labour’s support in seats it would win anyway.

Even more interesting, however, is that the parties and their candidates themselves had no more idea than the rest of us of what was about to hit them. Conservative campaigners on the ground only began to get worried a few days out – if they were lucky: many didn’t wake up to the wave that was about to break over them until groups of young voters began rocking up to polling stations on the day itself. And many Labour activists will admit privately that they didn’t have much more of a clue than their opposite numbers: just as pollsters find it notoriously difficult to get hold of young people – no landlines, not in (or awake) in the day, out in the evenings, not into party politics, etc. – so, too, do canvassers.

But this poses a puzzle. If canvassing didn’t ID these young Labour voters, then they weren’t brought to the polls by traditional means like ‘knocking up’ (i.e. by their names appearing on a list of promises, that list being checked against records taken by tellers at polling stations, and then, if they weren’t down as having voted yet, them being contacted and urged to do so).

That doesn’t mean, however, that Labour activists had no role whatsoever in getting the youth vote out. Rather, it means that we probably have to adopt a broader view of what constitutes activism nowadays – and adopt a slightly less sceptical view of the utility of online rather than offline campaign activity.

As part of an ESRC-funded project on party members run by me and Monica Poletti at Queen Mary University of London, along with Paul Webb, from the University of Sussex, we surveyed thousands of members of six UK parties: the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, UKIP and the Greens. Most of them were questioned just after the May 2015 general but, in Labour’s case, because of the huge influx of new members, we sent out an additional survey after the 2016 local elections.

Those surveys give us some idea of how Labour members compare to Conservative and other party members when it comes to different campaign activities. Cutting to the chase, what it reveals is that Labour is some way ahead of the Tories when it comes to online if not offline activities.

If we take offline activity first, then the two parties’ memberships are fairly evenly matched: leaving aside the thorny topic of over-claiming (which, importantly for our purposes, is no more likely to affect one party’s members more than the other’s), some 43% of Tory members claimed to have delivered leaflets at some stage during the 2015 general election, compared to 42% of Labour members. The proportion saying they did a bit of canvassing (either by phone or in person) was 36% for both parties.

If we then look at online, however, there are big differences. Some 40% of Tory members claimed to have liked something from their party or one of its candidates on Facebook at the 2015 election; but the figure for Labour members was 51%. As for tweeting or re-tweeting messages supporting their party or its candidates on Twitter, the figures were 26% and 37% respectively.

When we asked Labour members who joined the party after the 2015 General Election, many of them, no doubt, to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, we found they were much less likely than pre-2015 members to have leafletted or canvassed, although whether this was because they were less inclined to go ‘on the doorstep’, or because they hadn’t yet been asked to or because no-one gets as excited about local elections as they do about general elections, we don’t really know. But the proportion who’d campaigned on Facebook (54%) and Twitter (34%) was very similar to the one we found in 2015.

Could it be that it was this sort of activity, rather than the traditional kind, that mobilised younger voters to come out for Corbyn (and not May) on 8 June, explaining why their imminent appearance at polling stations wasn’t picked up beforehand? If so, ‘clicktivism’ is something we should take much more seriously from now on.

Originally published at http://www.electionanalysis.uk/uk-election-analysis-2017/section-4-parties-and-the-campaign/was-it-the-labour-doorstep-or-the-labour-smartphone-that-swung-it-for-jeremy/

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‘The Tory party is more useless than nasty’, Prospect, 20 June 2017.

A recently published review seems to sum the Conservative Party’s general election pretty well, no?

In fact, the portrait of the … campaign that emerges from these pages is that of a Titanic-like disaster: an epic fail made up of a series of perverse and often avoidable missteps by an out-of-touch candidate and her strife-ridden staff that turned “a winnable race” into “another iceberg-seeking campaign ship.” It’s the story of a wildly dysfunctional and “spirit-crushing” campaign that embraced a flawed strategy (based on flawed data) and that failed, repeatedly, to correct course. A passive-aggressive campaign that neglected to act on warning flares sent up by operatives on the ground … and that ignored … advice.

Except, of course, that it doesn’t sum up that campaign. I’ve lifted those words from the New York Times’s review of Shattered: Inside Hilary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes to make a point. And the point is this: as a political party you can have access to the greatest resources and some of the cleverest people on the planet, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily know what you’re doing or that you’re going to win—especially if the person in whom you’ve invested all that money and all that expertise simply isn’t up to it.

On the face of it, the Tory Party looks less likely than its rivals, and its counterparts in other countries, to land itself in that predicament. After all, its rules make it a good deal easier to ditch a leader who isn’t doing well than is the case in many other parties. They also limit the choice of candidates available to ordinary members voting in its leadership contests to two people who’ve been effectively vetted by MPs—who, in turn, have presumably had a pretty good chance to see what the candidates are made of at close quarters over a few years at Westminster.

But in reality, it doesn’t often work out like that. When leaders are struggling, they are allowed to carry on far longer than is sensible—so much so that the Tories can easily appear more useless than ruthless. And when they eventually do get replaced, the party often seems more intent on picking people for want of a better alternative, or for who they’re not, rather than for who they are.

Both of these principles applied in spades when it came to Mrs May getting the nod last year—as anyone who saw the BBC’s hilarious Theresa vs Boris on Sunday 18 June will attest.

Hers, just like Michael Howard’s back in 2005, was a faute de mieux coronation, designed to allow up a ‘grown-up’ to ‘get a grip’ on a situation that might otherwise have spun out of control after the party suddenly found itself rudderless—in May’s case after Cameron stepped down post referendum, and in Howard’s after the hapless Iain Duncan Smith had finally been put out of his misery following two whole years of it being painfully obvious to anybody paying attention that he was a total and utter embarrassment.

But in neither case was there any evidence whatsoever that the leader who’d just been handed the crown—without, remember, being required to show grassroots members what they could do on the stump—was going to be the kind of campaigner who could connect with people out there in the country.

Still, even if a full-blown leadership contest had allowed the party to field-test the Maybot, that’s no guarantee that it would necessarily have been on to a winner. And that’s because the winner of such contests is too often chosen primarily because they’re best placed not to charm the electorate but because they’re best placed to stop someone else: Major, it’s true, turned out (unlike Theresa May) to be capable of winning a (slim) majority and getting out on his soapbox but he was given the post-Thatcher nod in 1990 primarily because he wasn’t Heseltine; Hague got it in 1997 because he wasn’t Clarke; and Duncan Smith got it in 2001 because he wasn’t, again, Clarke—or Portillo.

Even David Cameron, the only Tory leader chosen in the last forty years who can claim to have secured the top job because he looked better able than his rival to win an election, also got it in part because he wasn’t that rival—an old hand who even those who didn’t think he was an arrogant shit thought he was a lazy one.

And who was that man? Why, none other than one David Davis, Brexit Secretary and currently the hot favourite to take over from Mrs May when eventually she and her party bow to the inevitable.

To the Conservative Party, which clearly isn’t as brilliant at this stuff as many people still seem determined to imagine, I say, ‘Good luck with that.’

Originally published at https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/the-tory-party-is-more-useless-than-nasty

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‘DEBATE: Does Theresa May’s failure to win a majority lay the path for another election before the end of the year? YES’, CityAM, 12 June 2017

Unless Theresa May surprises us all and makes the DUP “a big, open, and comprehensive offer” (copyright D. Cameron, 2010) of a full-blown coalition, then we’re going to see the Conservatives try to run a minority government dependent on Ulster Unionist support on “confidence and supply”. Even in countries where they’re taken for granted, like Denmark or Sweden, minority governments tend not to last as long as their majority equivalents. That’s likely to be even more the case in the UK where they’re a short-lived, and largely unloved aberration: think Harold Wilson in 1974 and John Major in the late nineties. No doubt many Tory MPs, especially those with small majorities, would like to put off the evil day – especially if Mrs May continues to lead them. Wiser heads will argue that the party would do better to control its own fate, put her out of her misery, and let a more convincing campaigner take the argument to an albeit reluctant country in the autumn.

Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/266370/debate-does-theresa-mays-failure-win-majority-lay-path

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‘Forget culture wars, the election was about power, cash and opportunity’, Observer, 11 June 2017

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth, “but to be young was very heaven!” OK, maybe that’s going a little too far, especially if you didn’t get a wink of sleep on Thursday night. But still. If you were aged 18-24 and you voted, then you probably felt pretty pleased with yourself on Friday morning. Younger voters, it seems, were the key to Jeremy Corbyn feeling like he has won when he has lost. Cue talk of the personality cult surrounding Labour’s sainted leader, of social media memes shared by tech-savvy digital natives and the revenge of young remainers angry that their future had been stolen from them while they weren’t looking (and in many cases, if they’re honest, not voting) in the EU referendum last summer.

But maybe something more fundamental – more Marxist even – is going on. Perhaps the apparent novelty of all the above risks distracting us from a rather more material explanation for what happened on Thursday and therefore for how politics will play out from now on.

Maybe we have grown so used to asserting that politics these days is all about culture rather than cash, about open v closed rather than state v market, that we’ve underestimated just how much the economy will continue to play a role, particularly when its largesse (or otherwise) is so unevenly distributed between classes and demographics. We’ve seen the evidence for that inequality of opportunity, of earning power and of ownership – some of us with our own eyes, some of us in the pages of this very newspaper. But this election, especially after seven years of austerity falling disproportionately on the young and “the just about managing”, may turn out to be a tipping point, something that takes us back to the future.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, much ink was spilled in trying to explain why the right rather than the left seemed to benefit electorally when careless capitalism was so clearly to blame. Certainly, one factor was the reputation of the former (more rhetorical than real, it has to be said) for balancing the books.

Keynes may have been correct to argue that the worst thing to do in the teeth of slowdown is to stop borrowing and spending. But convincing most of us that the nation’s economy is not the same as our household’s is a famously hard sell, hence the infuriatingly persuasive power of the repeated accusation that Labour had “maxed out the nation’s credit card”. But that was a long time ago, an emergency, whether imagined or real, that had to be dealt with, not an agreement on the part of voters to year after year of manifest underfunding of core public services.

Some on the right were clearly hoping that, after a while, this would become “the new normal”, accepted as an inevitable part of our daily lives, helping to keep taxes low and encouraging more and more of us to opt out into the private sector. But it turns out that, in Britain, at least, our sense of what the state can and should provide still runs pretty deep. As a result, just as has happened towards the end of every other period of Conservative government since the Second World War, a counter-reaction has begun to set in that anyone wanting to understand politics going forward has to understand. What is initially swallowed as good housekeeping eventually comes to seem like an ideological attempt to arrest the growth of the welfare state or even to shrink it, producing healthcare and education systems that increasingly, manifestly and tangibly fail to meet rising demand and expectations.

Previously, this pattern played out over a longer period of time: 13 years between 1951 and 1964; 18 between 1979 and 1997. But the current correction has kicked in after just seven. First, because of the speed and scale of the retrenchment attempted by the Conservativesafter 2010. Second, because that retrenchment has been going on (in marked contrast to the 1950s and 1980s) while growth, particularly real wage growth, has been anaemic to non-existent. And, third, especially (but not exclusively) for younger people, housing has become less and less affordable, employment less and less secure and personal debt an ever-growing, sometimes gnawing worry.

But there is one more, essentially political, reason for the process being short-circuited this time around. It’s not just because Theresa May chose to call the election three years earlier than she needed to. It’s that her predecessor, David Cameron, came to power posing as a new kind of Conservative, creating expectations by no means all of which he had any genuine commitment to fulfilling. For well-heeled, well-educated voters, those expectations revolved mainly around promises of a more social-liberal, cosmopolitan stance that would consolidate, even extend, the achievements of the Blair era on gay rights, gender and ethnic equality, justice, civil liberties and Europe.

With the signal exception of the last, as well as on immigration, those promises were basically met. But then along came Theresa May and the detoxification process looked as if it were not only stalling but being thrown into reverse.

Far more important, but far more frequently forgotten, were the expectations that Cameron’s Conservatism was all about embracing rather than rejecting the idea of the fabled centre ground, a claim neatly symbolised by his first setpiece party conference speech as Tory leader. “Tony Blair,” he cried, “once explained his priority in three words: education, education, education. I can do it in three letters… NHS.”

Allowing those words to ring more and more hollow, bleating about “ringfencing” and “record amounts of money” while people’s lived experience of increased waiting times and the rest told them something very different was going on, was something the Conservatives should never have allowed to happen. But they did, slipping back into presenting the essential choice in British politics as, to quote Maurice Saatchi, “efficient but cruel” Tories v “caring but incompetent” Labour.

That depressingly reductive war cry worked in 2015 – but only just. Which was why many genuinely centrist Conservatives, even those who rather regretted Cameron’s self-imposed passing last year, fooled themselves into thinking that a couple of speeches, one in Birmingham and one on the steps of Downing Street, meant Theresa May (she was the future once!) was going to be canny enough to press the reset button.

Brexit might mean Brexit, they reasoned, “control” might be brought back but so, too, would the message that the Conservatives genuinely believed in high-quality, well-funded public services. But a mixture of ideology and complacency – bolstered by the belief that Corbyn would be even easier to beat than Miliband, that banging on about Europe and immigration would win back Ukip voters, and that the Lib Dems were all but dead – seems to have put paid to the emergence of a genuinely post-Thatcherite Conservative party.

This suits Labour as it’s currently configured. Denouncing “the same old Tories” is the political equivalent of painting by numbers on Britain’s left. It neither requires nor generates any new thinking, especially when the weakness of other progressive parties – the Lib Dems, the Greens and, to a lesser extent, the SNP – gives Labour a virtual monopoly on outrage.

Meanwhile, its laudable, but hardly revolutionary, desire to show that it stands for “the many not the few” encourages Labour to adopt something-for-everyone policies focused on fairness rather than developing the kind of productive, high-skill social market economy likely to generate the wealth and security, and to pay for the public services, which most voters understandably crave.

All this means that we are confronted with the prospect of Britain’s two biggest parties being incapable of securing a parliamentary majority even for the second-best solutions they stand for. This might not be so bad if the electoral system and political geography that helps produce that situation did not also mean that the parties on their flanks lack the mainstream views and/or the Westminster seats to resolve it – in a manner consonant with the peaceful coexistence in Northern Ireland and the have-our-cake-and-eat-it Brexit that the majority of voters seem to want.

Politics now and in the future will revolve around interests as well as around identity, but it is badly blocked. After Corbyn’s victory of sorts and May’s equally equivocal defeat, talk of a new centre party has melted like snow in spring. That could be a pity: it might still turn out to be just what Britain needs to clear that blockage.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/10/forget-culture-wars-general-election-about-power-cash-opportunity

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‘The Conservatives have a leadership decision to make’, Financial Times, 9 June 2017

The Conservative party is, infamously, an autocracy tempered by assassination. If they win elections, or look like winning them, Tory leaders can do pretty much what they want. If they lose them, they are toast.

If we were living in normal, as opposed to interesting, times, Theresa May would be preparing her resignation statement and her potential successors readying themselves for the contest to replace her. But we are not living in normal times. Whether or not Brexit still means Brexit — and at the moment we’d be wise not to assume anything — it means the Conservatives can’t simply get shot of their leader in response to the electoral disaster into which she has led them.

Negotiations with the EU27 formally begin in a few days’ time. Conducting a full-blown leadership contest, involving a first round at Westminster and then a ballot of all Conservative party members, when those talks are ongoing is going to be very, very difficult, not to say destabilising. And that’s presuming the other member states will even want to start the process when they won’t know who they’re dealing with and won’t know just how hard or soft a Brexit whoever that person is will want to pursue.

True, the fact that Germany goes to the polls in the autumn perhaps buys the Tories some time. But they may feel, for the third time since it was first introduced, that they need to short-circuit their own process and avoid involving the grassroots in the decision by converging on a single candidate — another coronation rather than a contest.

But the danger of doing that is there for all of us to see. Mrs May was chosen last summer without being field-tested — and the result was a Conservative party going into an election it need never have called led by a leader who proved completely unable to connect with the electorate when it came to the crunch.

Ensuring this doesn’t happen again has to be a priority for a party that knows that another election is almost certainly imminent. Minority governments — let alone minority governments in the UK — do not tend to last that long. The Tories cannot, and will not, go into the next national contest with Mrs May at the helm.

And that, of course, presumes that she and whichever of her colleagues can lay claim to being the leadership of the party are in a position to provide Britain with a government in the medium term. The post-election parliamentary mathematics mean that it’s down to the Conservatives; but their choices are spectacularly limited.

Presumably (but who knows anything anymore?) a German-style grand coalition with Labour is out of the question and the Liberal Democrats may be stupid, but they’re not that stupid. Nor are the Scottish National party. That leaves the Democratic Unionists — a traditionally sectarian, loyalist party that the vast bulk of British voters wouldn’t tolerate as a coalition partner and which could make Brexit negotiations over the north-south border in Ireland even stickier than they are already. The DUP will want some sort of written contract giving them guarantees in return for their support. The Tories will want to preserve as much room for manoeuvre as possible.

But, like the EU27 the DUP will want to know who they’re dealing with. All roads, then, lead back to the Tory leadership. The party mustn’t panic. But it must decide.

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‘Forward Together: What the Tory manifesto says about Europe’, UK in a Changing Europe, 21 May 2017

Ah, Hear’Say! Not ‘hearsay’, as in stuff that you can’t really substantiate, but Hear’Say – the reality-TV band who went up like a rocket and down like a stick at the beginning of the noughties. Even if you can’t remember them from back then, their biggest (come to think of it, maybe their only) hit may well have ear-wormed its way into your unconscious anyway, especially if you’re a fan of the brilliant Peter Kay’s Car Share. Here’s the catchy chorus.

‘Where ever you go, (I want to be there),

Whatever you do, (i’m always gonna be there),

It’s pure and simple (yeah yeah)

I’ll be there for you.

Pure and simple gonna be there,

Whatever it takes, (i’m gonna be there),

I swear it’s true, (i’m always gonna be there),

It’s pure and simple (yeah yeah)

I’ll be there for you, pure and simple gonna be there.’

See what they did there?  Well that’s basically what the Conservative Party’s manifesto, Forward, Together, does too.

Unless you’ve been living on another planet – or you’re one of the very sensible majority of people who, according to YouGov’s research, don’t pay enough attention to politics to have heard in repeated again and again (and again) – then you’ll know Team Theresa has craftily substituted ‘strong and stable’ for ‘pure and simple’ as its campaign mantra.

Apart from that, though, the Tories’ trust-me message is basically the same as Hear’Say’s, although on Europe it’s supplemented by a couple more similarly reassuring (and, for a politician who needs to preserve maximum room for manoeuvre at the same time as projecting herself getting on with job, reassuringly vague) adjectival pairings.

The first thing the Tory manifesto wants to make clear is that our departure from the European Union will be ‘smooth and orderly’.  No surprise, there: Mrs May – who likes to hammer things home – has been making that very same point since delivering her Lancaster House speech, which, like her letter to Donald Tusk invoking Article 50 and the Great Repeal Bill, is cited in the manifesto, although it’s difficult to imagine the average reader (who definitely won’t be the average voter, mind) racing to read them all to get up to speed.

The second thing the Tory manifesto promises – if that’s the right word for an aspiration – is to negotiate a relationship with the EU that is ‘deep and special’ – in fact, so deep and so special (copyright Donald Trump) that the phrase is used seven times, often in maddeningly close and repetitive proximity.

Not least because, inasmuch as it does try to flesh out the phrase, the manifesto largely tells us what we already know from the speech, the letter and the bill just referred to, there really isn’t anything too unexpected in there.  What it does contain, though, is some serious wriggle room for the PM, as well as some stuff that those worried about Brexit should be concerned about.

Fans of renewables will, for instance, that note the passage that says ‘after we have left the European Union we will form our energy policy will based not on the way energy is generated but on the ends we desire’, which, as well as ‘meeting our global commitments on climate change’ means ‘reliable and affordable energy’.

Others might find something to concern them, at least in the long term, when the manifesto promises ‘We will not repeal or replace the Human Rights Act while the process of Brexit is underway but we will consider our human rights legal framework when the process of leaving the EU concludes. We will remain signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights for the duration of the next parliament.’ Oh, and if you live across the Irish Sea, what does ‘as frictionless a border as possible’ really mean?

Moreover, for all the much trumpeted Conservative land-grab on traditional Labour territory, it’s worth noting that, yes, ‘rights of workers and protections given to consumers and the environment by EU law will continue to be available in UK law’ but also that this will only, of course, be ‘at the point at which we leave the EU.’

And just for those who might have forgotten that, in UK politics anyway, one can’t bind the hands of one’s successors, there’s a handy (but possibly ominous) reminder that ‘Once EU law has been converted into domestic law, parliament will be able to pass legislation to amend, repeal or improve any piece of EU law it chooses.’

On the other hand, those who wish we weren’t leaving can find, if not solutions, then at least solace in some of the small print.  For example, the passage that notes ‘There may be specific European programmes in which we might want to participate and if so, it will be reasonable that we make a contribution’, points pretty obviously to a government gaining permission not only to opt in to stuff but also to pay for the privilege.

Yet for every swing there is a roundabout – and sometimes a return to rhetoric that those genuinely committed to a ‘smooth and orderly’ departure and a ‘deep and special’ partnership with the EU had hoped they’d heard the last of. Most worrying for them, perhaps, is the following passage: ‘Negotiations will undoubtedly be tough [tell us about it!], and there will be give and take on both sides [sounds reasonably promising], but [just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water] we continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK.’

And finally there’s the manifesto’s return to what some would see as wishful, even magical, thinking – not on how we’re going to take global trade by storm (although the government’s critics would say that’s bad enough) but on sheer bloody process. Although the UK has been told time and time again that, as far as the EU’s concerned, it’s not going to work like that, the Conservatives apparently continue to ‘believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside our withdrawal.’

Pure and simple, then? Maybe not so much.

Originally published at http://ukandeu.ac.uk/forward-together/ (and in Times Red Box as ‘May hammers home her catchy refrain).

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‘Greens can thrive as a party on the margins’, Times, 31 May 2017

The Greens are clearly the most left-leaning of all the parties that won significant support in 2015. Whether they can repeat their performance then (3.8 per cent and one million votes) is a moot point but even if they end up down, they won’t end up out.

On the upside, the Greens are this year led by a more high-profile and more gifted politician in Caroline Lucas, occupier of the party’s only Westminster seat, Brighton Pavilion – a seat it should hold onto.

On the downside, the lack of a full-blown, televised leaders’ debate this time round will mean less visibility.

Many of those who supported the party last time round may vote Labour this time because, as so-called watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) they are as much driven by left liberalism as they are environmental concerns.

The Lib Dems may also have lost at least a little of the toxicity they picked up by going into coalition with the Tories last time, meaning they may pick up some of the so-called mangoes (green on the outside, orange on the inside) who deserted Nick Clegg in 2015.

However, while the Greens may lose votes (and are unlikely to gain additional seats) at this election, it will not make much difference to their prospects post-election.

They are, after all, used to being a small, marginalised party which can continue to function quite happily as the nation’s conscience. This is partly because of Ms Lucas and partly because the environment is a genuinely pressing problem and reluctantly acknowledged as such by most British voters.

In that sense, the party’s vote-share is largely, if not completely, irrelevant. Unless and until other parties adopt the Green Party’s radical agenda, which, given what they see as its deleterious consequences for economic growth and electoral popularity, is highly unlikely, then its niche will always be there. It may, considering the rise in the proportion of Britain’s population going into higher education, even expand over time.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/tim-bale-8l37pzmj6

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