‘The Tory temperament means a U-turn on Europe is always possible’, Financial Times, 27 September 2017.

The prime minister’s speech in Florence may well help, in the short term, to clear some of the obstacles that currently stand in the way of the UK’s departure from the EU in 2019. But here is a heretical thought: in the longer term, however unlikely it now seems, do not be too sure that a Conservative government, under a different leader and in changed circumstances, will not one day be looking for a way back in.

Next month sees the 45th anniversary of the European Communities Act — the legislation that took the UK into what was then the European Economic Community. It was passed, of course, by a Conservative government.

We need to be careful, however, not to draw too simplistic and stark a contrast between the Tories’ Europhilia of yesteryear and their Euroscepticism today. Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, after all, only managed to secure parliamentary agreement to accession with the help of Labour’s social democrats and in the teeth of furious opposition from some of his own MPs.

Go a little further back to earlier, unsuccessful attempts to gain entry to the EEC in 1961 and 1967, and it becomes obvious that the Tories have long been arguing over the UK’s relationship with “Europe”, in all its guises.

True, Margaret Thatcher handbagging her way to a budget rebate in 1984 and making her Bruges speech in 1988 brought these passions to a pitch. The ferment continued with her subsequent defenestration in 1990 and the country’s humiliating exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday two years later. Passing the Maastricht treaty in 1992 saw the Tory benches in the Commons riven, with nine MPs deprived of the party whip. The Lisbon treaty (2007), Tony Blair’s decision to allow unfettered access to the UK’s labour market to eastern European migrants after enlargement in 2004, and the eurozone crisis, all reopened the wounds.

But these events only meant so much to Tories because they tapped into a much deeper well of age-old Conservative concerns: about paying something for nothing; about the machinations of scheming foreigners; and about sacrificing national sovereignty, border control, and both diplomatic and economic room for manoeuvre.

And while we cannot dismiss each and every Tory Brexiter as a nostalgic imperialist, pathetically hankering after a revived Anglosphere, many of them see our involvement in Europe and our ability to trade freely with the rest of the world as a zero-sum game.

So far, so Conservative, some would say. They would be wrong. One reason why the Tory party can lay claim to being the world’s longest surviving and most successful political party is its ability to meld together, more or less convincingly, several contradictory strains — not least the longing of some of its adherents for (neo) liberal clarity and its more pragmatic members’ instincts towards messier compromise and incrementalism.

As a consequence, there will always be tensions within the party — profound faultlines that Europe, perhaps more than any other issue, has a nasty habit of exposing.

For instance, for all that Brexit may fulfil some present-day Conservatives’ fantasies of Britain’s gloriously deregulated global destiny, it seems to run completely counter to the party’s long-established political economy which, since the collapse of empire at least, has relied on progressively freeing up the movement of goods, services, capital and people within our nearest, most lucrative overseas markets. The most striking example is via the qualified majority voting embodied in the Single European Act — designed by Thatcher’s personal pick as European Commissioner, Arthur Cockfield, and signed into law by her in 1986.

At an even deeper level, the current government’s determination to undo decades’ worth of economic and political integration flies in the face of what Michael Oakeshott, the party’s pre-eminent postwar philosopher, termed the conservative “disposition” or “temperament”. The conservative, wrote Oakeshott “is not in love with what is dangerous and difficult; he is unadventurous; he has no impulse to sail uncharted seas; for him there is no magic in being lost, bewildered or shipwrecked . . . What others plausibly identify as timidity, he recognises in himself as rational prudence . . . He eyes the situation in terms of its propensity to disrupt the familiarity of the features of his world.”

Of course, any quick-witted Tory Brexiter will argue that this is precisely the advice that Macmillan and Heath — and even Thatcher by her campaigning for a Yes vote in the 1975 referendum — failed to heed. Are we not, half a century later, simply righting a wrong, rejoining the prudent path from which we should never have strayed so recklessly?

Likewise, to the blindingly obvious psephological argument that a large majority of today’s younger voters regard Brexit as utterly bonkers, and that the Conservatives only win elections when they are seen to embody the future as well as the past, the party’s hardcore Leavers can claim to be doing just that. The west, they will argue, is on the wane. Power is shifting inexorably to Asia. Get with the programme! You may think we have stolen your future. But Brexit will get you there faster.

It is this very eclecticism and flexibility of thought that has served the Tories so well over two centuries that has allowed the party to enthusiastically embrace Europe, then renounce it and all its works. But remember these qualities — they also mean it may not be the end of the story.

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/2f2c6512-9ebe-11e7-8b50-0b9f565a23e1

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‘To me, golliwogs are racist – but a tearoom tangle and a new poll shows Britain disagrees’, The Conversation, 20 September 2017.

There is a café at the foot of the South Downs. On the wall hangs a golliwog. And that bothers me. So much so that, on discovering it a few weeks ago, I got into a heated argument with the owners which resulted in them calling the police, me contacting the council, and, in the end, nothing whatsoever happening.

That’s because the owners are adamant that they won’t be told what to do. Said golliwog has never caused offence before. Moreover, and in spite of the fact that, apparently, the stuffed toy originally came into their possession because someone left it outside the café to cast a racist slur against them (one of the owners is a Greek immigrant), it definitely isn’t racist.

I beg to differ. Although, as a child in the sixties and seventies, I grew up with golliwogs – on the sides of Robertson’s jam jars, in Enid Blyton’s books, in toyshops – I don’t think I actually owned one. And as I grew up, I fairly quickly came to realise – as eventually did Robertson’sBlyton’s publishers, and maybe even former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s daughter, Carol – that they were inescapably demeaning to black people.

Obviously, readers can make up their own minds – perhaps after consulting this excellent primer on the golliwog produced by Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which uses objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice.

What no one should do, however, is to go away with the idea that, if they end up on my side of the argument rather than on the side of the café owners and sundry other seaside shopkeepers, then they’re in the majority – not if they live in the UK in 2017 anyway.

I know this because I commissioned a poll by YouGov to find out. We asked two questions: “Generally speaking, do you think it is or is not acceptable to sell or display a golliwog doll?” and “Do you think it is or is not racist to sell or display a golliwog doll?”

Surprising attitudes

The answers we got reveal that the majority of British people don’t really have a problem with golliwogs: some 53% think selling or displaying them is acceptable, compared to 27% who don’t and 20% who don’t know. Interestingly, the majority who don’t consider doing so as racist is even bigger: 63% don’t, compared to 20% who do and 17% who don’t know.

But the answers also reveal big differences driven by demography, education, ethnicity, and political preferences. Indeed, the “golliwog test” might have been a pretty good predictor, for instance, as to whether someone was going to vote for or against Brexit.

The older you are, the less likely you are to have a problem with golliwogs. Some 70% of over 65s think it’s acceptable to sell or display one and 80% of them are convinced that doing so isn’t racist. The figures for 18- to 24-year-olds are just 24% and 34% respectively.

Education seems to make a difference, too – although not as big as you might think. A plurality, but only a small one, of graduates (40% vs 37%) think it’s unacceptable to sell or display golliwogs. And when it comes to whether doing so is racist, that plurality is reversed: only 31% of graduates think it is, as against 47% who think it isn’t.

Less surprising, perhaps, are the stark differences with regard to ethnicity. Some 55% of white respondents think selling or displaying a golliwog is acceptable, as opposed to 29% of their ethnic minority counterparts, 43% of whom consider it unacceptable. That said, only a minority (albeit a substantial one) of the minority respondents (32%) think doing so is racist, compared to just 19% of white respondents, 65% of whom think it isn’t.

Maybe, though, it’s politics that provides the most striking finding. Lib Dem supporters, followed by Labour supporters, are the most likely to have a problem with golliwogs, while Conservative supporters are much less bothered. Only one in three Lib Dems think selling or displaying one is acceptable, compared to four out of ten Labour supporters and seven out of ten Tories. And when it comes to whether doing so is racist, 78% of Tories dismiss the idea, dropping to 56% of Labour supporters and 46% of Lib Dems.

Leave or Remain?

Most eye-catching of all the survey’s findings, however, is quite how differently the issue is seen by those who voted to leave and those who voted to stay in the EU in June 2016. Displaying or selling a golliwog is seen as acceptable by almost twice as many leavers (72%) as remainers (37%). And some 81% of leavers are convinced that doing so isn’t racist, compared to 48% of remainers.

Now, no one – least of all me – is arguing that we judge whether a symbol or stereotype is or isn’t unacceptable or racist according to whether a majority or plurality of people think it is. It’s perfectly legitimate to argue that something is (or is not) racist, irrespective of public opinion. Conversely, it is equally possible to argue that, if a minority group feels demeaned by a symbol or stereotype obviously aimed at them, then that symbol or stereotype is demeaning whether or not others regard it as such. An awareness – implicit or explicit – that this may be the case is presumably why a few respondents to the survey don’t see displaying or selling a golliwog as racist but nevertheless think it’s unacceptable to do so.

Of course, what is and isn’t considered offensive or racist is socially constructed and reconstructed over time and space. Why is a golliwog, for instance, deemed acceptable when a stuffed toy based on a caricature of other enslaved racial minorities probably wouldn’t be? And could we – should we – try to change people’s views on golliwogs by telling them more about their origins?

Then there’s the whole debate around whether racist slurs can somehow be appropriated and turned around by those they were originally used to offend, with the paradigmatic example being the use of the N-word by (some) African Americans. Yet, even if you’re convinced that such reappropriation somehow works, how far can it be taken? Put bluntly, can a Greek really reappropriate a golliwog?

Finally, there is the question of property rights and free speech. In this case, the café owners, were they ever to see the results of this poll, would see that around a quarter of their potential customers would find something they’re doing unacceptable and that a fifth would find it downright racist. But if they chose to carry on regardless, taking any potential opportunity cost on the chin on the basis of their right to do as they please with their own business, should public policy support or constrain that right?

Answers on a (seaside) postcard, please.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/to-me-golliwogs-are-racist-but-a-tearoom-tangle-and-a-new-poll-shows-britain-disagrees-84314

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‘Will Boris Johnson be the next Prime Minister – No’, City AM, 19 September 2017

Boris Johnson is a classicist. So was Machiavelli. And I’d say it was the Renaissance special adviser, rather than some ancient Greek or Roman, who provides the better clue to the foreign secretary’s behaviour in the last few days.

Rather than making it more difficult for Theresa May to sack him, Boris might actually be trying to force her hand, thus leaving him free, when the Brexit brown stuff finally hits the fan, to say “I told you so”, and thereby claim his princely inheritance.

Except that it’s not his inheritance any more. Boris’s time was straight after the EU referendum, and he blew it. He simply didn’t have the parliamentary numbers to make it through to the final round decided on by grassroots members.

Since then, even they seem a little less keen. And there’s no evidence that Boris has persuaded more colleagues at Westminster to back him either.

Nil desperandum BoJo! But, right now, at least, Downing Street looks like a distant prospect.

Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/272272/boris-johnson-next-prime-minister

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‘Pro-EU Tories flirting with rebellion need to put their votes where their mouths are’, Times Red Box, 6 September 2017.

How much more of this can we be expected to take? With each and every passing day, we seem to read more and more about the looming threat posed to the government’s supposedly precarious commons majority on Brexit by rebellious pro-European Tory MPs.

But, so far anyway, we’ve seen precious little sign that they’re really going to put their votes where their mouths are.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of Anna Soubry. And the same goes for Nicky Morgan and Dominic Grieve. They’re my kind of Tories, after all. I just hope they realise that there are only so many times they can allow themselves to be paraded as potential supporters of opposition amendments designed to soften or even scupper Brexit before they actually have to deliver rather than simply flatter to deceive.

I know, I know. I’m jumping the gun, right? The Repeal Bill has barely begun its journey through parliament so they haven’t yet had a chance to prove to doubting Thomases like me that they’re not all talk and no action. It’s also true, especially after the Syria vote and under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, that government defeats on arguably existential matters no longer imply no confidence, meaning that it’s less easy to convince rebels that doing the dirty (or the decent thing, depending on how you look at it) could trigger a general election.

But reading between the lines, and comparing today’s Tory pro-Europeans with, say, the Eurosceptic whipless wonders who made John Major’s life such a misery back in the nineties, you’ve got to wonder whether, when it comes to the crunch, they’ll actually have the courage of their convictions.

For one thing, they – like the Scots Tories who some think could also cause Mrs May problems on Europe – aren’t zealous obsessives on the outer fringes of either reality or the Conservative Party. They’re worried about Brexit precisely because they’re pragmatic, centrist politicians who don’t want their own government to take liberties with parliament or the devolved legislatures in order to promote a course of action that they fear will crash both the economy and its electoral fortunes.

For another, some of the potential rebels still harbour hopes that (though perhaps only in the dim, distant future and under a different prime minister) room might be found for them again (or in some cases for the first time) on the frontbench. Rebellion, as my Queen Mary colleague Phil Cowley and his various collaborators have shown, isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to the graveyard of ambition. But there’s a big difference between making a handy name for yourself by being an occasional pain in the proverbial and doing something frankly unforgivable when colleagues who share your reservations have agreed to swallow them and take one for the team.

At the moment anyway, it looks to me like the Tory pro-Europeans’ game-plan is to flirt with rebellion in order to wring concessions out of the government, either by persuading it to table its own amendments or, if that proves impossible, to make verbal assurances in debate to take their concerns into account later on. My question for them is whether they really think that flirting – and those verbal assurances – will ultimately be enough.

So far, we’ve seen a lot of huff and puff from Ms Soubry and her ilk.

But unless they take the opportunity, at least once – even if it’s only on the most innocuous of amendments – to actually blow the house down then their whips, and the rest of us, are going to realise they’re sheep in wolves clothing: big talkers whose baaa turns out to be so much worse than their bite.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/pro-eu-tories-flirting-with-rebellion-need-to-put-their-votes-where-their-mouths-are-cp7vhwlqz

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‘Blue on blue: the 10 greatest Tory feuds’, New Statesman, 14 August 2017.

The Conservatives have descended into infighting over Europe, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone – they have been at each other’s throats many times before. The Tory expert Tim Bale provides a guide to the most acrimonious feuds, starting in 1945…

10) Winston Churchill v Lord (Fred) Woolton

You’ve probably never heard of Lord Woolton – of course you haven’t. And that’s just the way Winston hoped it would turn out. The two men started out on pretty good terms. After all, it was Churchill who appointed his wartime minister of food to the chairmanship of the Tory party in 1945.

It proved a shrewd appointment. Woolton increased the membership and raised a shedload of money, which helped Churchill win office again in 1951. But by that time, every­one who worked with either of them knew that they didn’t see eye to eye, although the tension tended to bubble rather than boil over. It was partly down to jealousy on both men’s parts, but also because Churchill’s enthusiasm for an electoral pact with the Liberal Party went far beyond what Woolton (and most of his colleagues and the Tory grass roots) thought was necessary or wise. The result? Churchill is mythologised and Woolton largely forgotten.

9) Anthony Eden v Winston Churchill

Remember how Gordon Brown kept nagging Tony Blair to stand down so he could take over, and how Blair kept stringing him along? The relationship between Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill followed a similar dynamic. Many Tories assumed that Churchill, after regaining the premiership in 1951, would promptly hand over to the man widely tipped as his successor. But Churchill clung on to office despite increasingly serious concerns about his health and, indeed, his fitness to govern.

Eventually, he bowed to the inevitable but let it be known to a few close associates that he feared Eden would make a hash of things. He was right. After Eden’s handsome victory at the 1955 election, it only took weeks for the new prime minister’s high-handed manner to grate on his cabinet colleagues, with the result that few were upset when, after the humiliation of Suez, he resigned on the grounds of ill health.

8) The Tory establishment v Rab Butler

If it’s tough at the top, it can be even tougher getting there – or not getting there. When Eden went, many expected Richard Austen Butler, familiarly known as Rab, to succeed him. They were wrong.

After consultations among the party – there was no such thing as a leadership contest back then – it was Harold Macmillan who “emerged” as Tory leader and therefore prime minister. Butler felt the slight deeply but continued to serve loyally.

When Macmillan, who had won an impressive victory at the 1959 general election, resigned in 1963 after the Profumo affair, it looked as if Butler would finally get his chance. But he was again denied it by the “customary processes” that (allegedly with Macmillan’s help) handed the leadership and the premiership to Alec Douglas-Home, who had to renounce his place in the House of Lords to claim his prize.

Not everyone was pleased, and two high-profile ministers pointedly refused to serve under him. Enoch Powell was one of them. The other (better known at the time) was Iain Macleod, who used his position as editor of the Spectator (think George Osborne but still in parliament) to write an exposé in which he claimed that an Old Etonian “magic circle” had manipulated the consultation process to block Butler in favour of one of their own.

7) Enoch Powell v Ted Heath

Powell was always seen as a bit of an oddity – albeit a rather brilliant one – by his colleagues. When the Tories held their first democratic leadership contest in 1965, he came third with the support of just 15 MPs, far behind the winner, Ted Heath, with 150.

His fellow MPs knew that Powell was becoming increasingly concerned about what he saw as the long-term downsides of mass immigration from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent. But both the content and the tone of his “rivers of blood” speech in April 1968 came as an enormous shock. Ted Heath never forgave or, apparently, even spoke to Powell again. Yet Powell – a Thatcherite and a Euro­sceptic avant la lettre – was, according to contemporary polling, one of the most popular politicians in the country. He then spent most of the next five years opposing Heath’s ultimately successful attempt to get Britain into Europe. In 1974, Powell quit the Commons and urged people to vote Labour.

6) Ted Heath v Margaret Thatcher

A true grudge match. Heath only appointed Thatcher to his shadow cabinet and then his cabinet because he felt obliged to give something to a woman, and she was by far the most talented available. She stuck loyally to her education brief during his 1970-74 government, although privately she thought his government was a disaster. After he lost both of the 1974 general elections, she had the temerity  to challenge and then beat Heath for the leadership the following year.

He never forgave her, descending into what became known as “the long sulk”. She refused to offer him an olive branch or a way back into high office. They died unreconciled.

5) Margaret Thatcher v John Major

Thatcher, like Heath, bought into the myth of her own indispensability and was devastated when her parliamentary party decided in November 1990 that she had passed her sell-by date. Fearing that she might be succeeded by Michael Heseltine, she alighted on her chancellor, John Major, as the man most likely to stop Hezza. But things soon began to turn sour as (according to Thatcher) her anointed successor proceeded to stray from the path of true Conservatism. Their relationship grew increasingly strained as she grew more Eurosceptic and made her displeasure ever more public.

4) Team Hague v Team Portillo

For sheer comedy value, this one had it all. Michael Portillo’s dream of taking over from John Major after the Tories were blown out of the water by New Labour in 1997 came crashing down as he lost his seat in the landslide. William Hague got the job, but it wasn’t too long before Portillo made it back in a by-election, after which there was much talk – at least among Hague’s paranoid praetorian guard – about the Portillistas scheming to snatch the top job for their Iberian icon. Every policy announcement, media interview and speech by the shadow chancellor was analysed for disloyalty (and for signs that he might be making a move).

Meanwhile Team Portillo grew increasingly frustrated by the right-wing populist thrust of Hague’s operation and its sheer incompetence. At the time, Tony Blair was walking all over the Conservative Party, so their infighting was a fine illustration of Sayre’s law: “In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

3) Iain Duncan Smith v almost everyone

By 2001, Michael Portillo was privately convinced that the Tory party wasn’t ready for the modernisation that he thought was crucial to reviving its electoral fortunes. So after that year’s election defeat, he stood for the leadership with a measure of reluctance. What happened proved him right. Portillo had his youthful gay experiences dragged up by his opponents and didn’t make it into the ballot of grass-roots Tory members, who promptly chose the right-wing “headbanger” Iain Duncan Smith over the cuddly Europhile Ken Clarke.

As many predicted, Duncan Smith was a disaster and fast became a national joke.  He was eventually defenestrated in a confidence vote after party donors made it clear that his time was up.

2) David Cameron (and the Notting Hill set) v Derek Conway and others

Remember Conway? The MP for Ted Heath’s old constituency? A good mate of David Davis? Got in trouble with the parliamentary authorities for employing his son as his parliamentary assistant while he was a full-time student? In 2004, after a story went round that the leadership wanted rid of “bed-blocking”, “old”, “suntanned faces” in the parliamentary party, Conway appeared on the BBC to denounce what he called the “Notting Hill set”– the modernisers around David Cameron. Cameron had the last laugh. In 2008, the committee on standards and privileges produced a damning report on Conway and the Tory leader withdrew the whip from him – no doubt more in sadness than in anger…

1) George Osborne v Theresa May

Throughout the coalition years, there were bitter policy disagreements between Osborne and May – particularly when she, as home secretary, insisted on trying (in vain) to cut immigration in ways that he, as chancellor, considered politically risky and economically illiterate. But then the Brexit vote happened, not only foiling Osborne’s plans to take over from Cameron but giving May a chance to humiliate him by refusing to offer him a cabinet post.

That led Osborne to the editorship of the London Evening Standard, which he has turned into a bully pulpit, helped by knowing where pretty much all the bodies are buried. Given that the Prime Minister presumably has only a limited shelf life after she blew the general election, let’s enjoy this feud while we can.

Originally published at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/08/blue-blue-10-greatest-tory-feuds

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‘A new centrist pro-EU party can be a catalyst even if it flops’, Financial Times, 12 August 2017.

Journalists bemoaning the loss of yet another colleague to PR or the civil service sometimes talk about that hack-to-flak transformation as “going over to the dark side”. James Chapman, who in 2015 was persuaded by George Osborne to give up the political editorship of the maniacally Eurosceptic Daily Mail and become director of communications at the Treasury, might not have seen it that way initially.

But a short and (one assumes) unhappy post-referendum stint as chief of staff to David Davis at the Department for Exiting the European Union seems to have persuaded him that the Tories have become the bad guys of British politics.

After quitting Whitehall, Mr Chapman has become an outspoken champion for the idea not only that the UK must pull back from Brexit but that doing so requires the formation of a brand new, pro-European, socially liberal, centrist party. So far this idea has lit up social media but failed to attract serious support, even from former prime minister Tony Blair, long rumoured to be flirting with such a démarche. At first glance, one can see why.

The Liberal Democrats, led by an unashamedly anti-Brexit heavyweight, Vince Cable, can argue that the country already has such a party. Conservatives hoping they can somehow achieve a soft Brexit — or at least a soft landing via a potentially infinite transition — cannot be seen to be tempted: otherwise they would lose what traction they still have. The same goes for those Labour MPs talking about cross-party working in order to avoid a hard Brexit.

Others, veterans of previous splits, are more vocally dismissive, with some of the liveliest and most powerful pooh-poohing coming from Lord (Andrew) Adonis. Writing in Progress, a safe haven for Labour’s embattled moderates, Adonis argues that the searing experience in the 1980s of the breakaway Social Democratic party, of which he was an early member, constitutes a dire warning rather than a shining example. Anyone toying with the idea of a new party dedicated, as Roy Jenkins, patron saint of pro-EU liberal social democracy, and founding member of the SDP once put it, to “breaking the mould” of British politics and, in so doing, stopping Brexit before it is too late, should beware.

Even in this era of voter volatility, the obstacles to success — atavistic tribal loyalties, an electoral system that punishes third parties, and limited support for cosmopolitan internationalism even among the majority of the electorate that sees itself as centrist — are every bit as forbidding as Lord Adonis says.

But what actually constitutes success? Clearly, the SDP failed in the sense of realising its founders’ hope that it would replace a Labour party chronically beholden to the trade unions and socialist nostalgia among activists and MPs.

But, by scaring the living daylights out of some of those trade unions, activists and MPs in the early years of its shortlived existence, it helped those who decided not to jump ship (and whose loyalty to Labour could not therefore be questioned) to win their party back to a more European, more moderate centre-left stance.

Likewise, the UK Independence party (that won far fewer defectors from the Conservatives than the SDP did from Labour, and never came close to matching its opinion poll highs) succeeded by persuading enough Tories, at both the top and the bottom of the party, that it presented such a threat on the right that Nigel Farage’s populist Euroscepticism would have to be aped rather than attacked. Ukip cannot now boast a single MP, but its job is done.

A new party, then, might well be a suicide mission — but one that succeeds by acting as a catalyst for change in its closest competitor. That change may not prove permanent or even that profound — think of it as a nudge rather than a nuclear explosion. At a tipping point, however, a nudge is sometimes all that is needed.

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/530de0c6-7eae-11e7-ab01-a13271d1ee9c

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‘Death and foxes: why certain issues have the power to turn a political campaign’, Prospect, 7 August 2017

British Election Study research released last week not only confirmed that the campaign made a big difference in 2017, but also gave us an insight into the issues that may have changed voters’ minds.

Two or three things on the list—neatly illustrated by an animated wordcloud—stood out straight away to anyone who’s been following the discussion over what went wrong with Theresa May’s campaign, particularly among those who helped her fight it on the ground.

To those who don’t follow Tory politics as closely as sad-sacks like me, combing through the below-the-line comments on posts on ConservativeHome probably sounds about as tempting as taking a swan-dive into sewage. But everyone ought to try it sometime. Reading the pretty-much unmediated views of Tory activists often counters the common wisdom as much as it confirms it: they’re not all ridiculously right-wing headbangers. Many of them care as deeply about the welfare of the majority of the people living in this country as self-styled progressives do; they just have a different view of how best to promote it.

What those activists also care a lot about, of course, is winning elections, and winning them well. So—surprise, surprise—they’re not feeling too happy right now. Indeed, some of the most interesting stuff on the site recently revolves around what put off those voters who, they’d hoped, might deliver their party a massive majority on 9 June. These discussions are conducted both above- and below-the-line by people who spent much of their free time this Spring canvassing for the Conservatives.

Interestingly—and, for academics and pollsters, reassuringly—the testimony of those who help the Tories out at elections (some of them members, some of them probably just supporters) dovetails with much of what the professional survey research seems to have uncovered.

The issues that mattered

Although a little reluctant to admit it, those posting are willing to concede (or at least imply) that the Maybot’s lacklustre performance mattered, as did her refusal to turn up to the big TV debate that Corbyn agreed to do at the last minute: a decision which made her look as if she were running scared both from him and from the voters. (Although, given her infamously patronising ‘magic money tree’ response to a nurse who did get to question her later on live TV, one can perhaps understand why she took that risk.)

Also important, predictably enough, was the dementia tax: not just because it was proposed in the first place, and not just because the ensuing U-turn made May look ‘weak and wobbly’ rather than ‘strong and stable’, but because May then went onto insult voters’ intelligence with her near-maniacal insistence that ‘nothing has changed’.

That move, however, was not the most mystifying of the election as far as Tory activists were concerned. That particular prize goes to a mastersroke neatly encapsulated in a below-the-line comment from ‘ManFromKent’ on a post-election ConHome post on what went wrong:

Young Voter: ‘We can’t afford homes, we’re saddled with student debt, public services seem to be falling apart, what are you going to do?’

Conservative manifesto: ‘We’re going to give rich people the chance to rip small animals apart for fun, like they used to do before you were born.’

Not the most compelling argument, is it?

No way was fox hunting the most important issue of #GE2017. But, according to those wearing what passed for Conservative boots on the ground in May and June, the announcement that the PM would be backing a free vote on the issue came up again and again on the doorstep, as well as on Facebook.

What future campaigns can learn

That it did so tells us something worth knowing about issues that are capable of swinging a campaign this way or that—if not in isolation, then as part of a package of ideas.

May’s support for hunting with dogs mattered because it enjoyed a campaign half-life even after it disappeared from the headlines after a day or two. In part that was because the activity, in and of itself, is incredibly unpopular.

But it was also because the Prime Minister’s apparent support for it suggested the Tories were, despite their insistence to the contrary, still led by a bunch of people who didn’t really seem to care too much about the real concerns of twenty-first century Britain. The same went for the dementia tax and debate debacles.

None of us knows whether predictions are still worth making in such volatile times. But if they are, and if we’re thinking about the issues that could turn an election or a referendum campaign, then we should surely keep our eyes peeled and our ears cocked for proposals that are not only tangible and/or emotive enough to cut through the media fog, but which also speak volumes (or can be made to speak volumes) about those advocating or opposing them.

Precisely what those issues will turn out to be is likely to become apparent only as any campaign to come kicks off. But, in the meantime, feel free to start guessing…

Originally published at https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/taxes-and-foxes-why-certain-issues-have-the-power-to-turn-a-political-campaign


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