‘Labour leadership race: survey shows Rebecca Long-Bailey only just scrapes majority among Momentum members’ (with Paul Webb), The Conversation, 15 January 2020.

Left-wing campaign group Momentum attracted a mixture of anger and ridicule when it announced that it would not ballot its membership on which candidate it should endorse in the Labour leadership contest. Instead, the group simply asked members to vote on whether to accept or reject an official resolution to support Rebecca Long-Bailey.

Our survey of Labour Party members – commissioned from YouGov by the Party Members Project run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University – suggests critics of the decision may have a point.

By no means all those Labour members who told us they also belonged to Momentum are fans of the woman who some have labelled the “continuity Corbyn” candidate. Indeed, only the barest majority of them named her as their first choice when we presented them with a list of possible runners and riders.

True, Long-Bailey looks to be the overall winner among Momentum members, three and a half times as much support as Keir Starmer, with the other candidates even further behind. But the fact that, in our survey, Long-Bailey was the first choice of only just over half of Momentum members suggests that those members deserved to be asked a genuine question, not just to confirm (or otherwise) the choice made by the organisation’s National Coordinating Group.

The ideal candidate

But that’s not all our survey reveals when it comes to how Labour members feel about the leadership contest. We also wanted to know which qualities in a leader party members valued most highly.

The results we publish here refer only to what proportion of members ranked that particular quality as number one on the list. But they do suggest that while voter appeal is seen by many Labour members as important (more so, maybe, than they are often given credit for), being seen to have strong political convictions also matters.

Perhaps that’s not surprising since, almost by definition and as our recently published book shows, most party members are pretty ideological creatures. Labour’s rank-and-file are, by and large, very left wing and very socially liberal. But this also means that there is relatively little room for variation between the supporters of the various candidates. Yes, Long-Bailey’s backers are a little more left-wing and socially liberal than her opponents’ supporters, but the differences are tiny.

What’s more interesting, therefore, are the differences in the leadership qualities that are most highly valued by the supporters of each candidate and then which candidate is favoured according to which quality members thought most important.

For Starmer’s supporters, his biggest draw would seem to be his ability to appeal to and to be in touch with voters; being seen as a strong leader and being able to unite both party and country also count. For Long-Bailey’s supporters, however, her appeal would seem to be overwhelmingly down to the perceived strength of her political convictions.

For Phillips’s fans, her appeal to ordinary voters and strong leadership matter most. For Nandy’s supporters, it is about her perceived appeal to and being in touch with voters. Her potential to offer strong leadership also matters. For Thornberry’s, it is more of a mix of factors: strong convictions, being in touch, strong leadership, intelligence and electoral appeal all come into play.

If, however, we break things down the other way around and look instead at which candidate comes first among those members who rank a particular leadership quality highest, we see a clearer picture emerge.

Starmer comes first in all categories except likeability, being in touch and strength of convictions, where Long-Bailey wins. Once again, her key asset would seem to be the fact that she is seen to believe in something.

Judging by the campaign so far, Starmer’s team is doing its very best to stress to Labour members that he also believes in something. This is a wise move. Historically, when picking leaders, parties have taken candidates’ convictions into account but have tended to put more of premium on their perceived ability to unite the party and then on their supposed appeal to voters. Nowadays, when members rather than MPs matter most to the decision a party makes, convictions can really count.

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‘Remember: the average Labour member isn’t as political as you think’, New Statesman, 13 January 2020.

Just after New Years, we – the ESRC-funded Party Members Project run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University – released the results of a survey of Labour Party members that we’d commissioned YouGov to run for us over Christmas.

We knew these results might cause a stir, showing as they did that – at least when our questionnaire was in the field – that Keir Starmer appeared to be a fairly long way ahead of Rebecca Long-Bailey, seen by many as the continuity Corbyn candidate.

Cue predictable accusations that a thousand or so people couldn’t possibly give anyone an idea of how the membership as a whole is thinking, that no one should trust any survey conducted by an organisation “owned by Tories”, and that we’d set a bandwagon rolling that would skew the result against the left.

The purpose of this piece is not to answer those accusations – we’ve already attempted to do so elsewhere – but to provide another perspective on members’ views on the leadership

We can do that not by reheating their responses to our questions, which asked them to rank a number of potential runners and riders from a pre-prepared list by focusing on an open-ended question that, earlier on in the questionnaire, simply asked them who they thought should replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

Not altogether unpredictably, these also suggest Starmer is the single most popular choice, named (unprompted remember) by 21 per cent of members – twice as many as those (10 per cent) who named Rebecca Long-Bailey.

(Note to journalists and political insiders, by the way: just one solitary respondent referred to her by her initials, so maybe stop trying to make “RLB” happen.)

In third place, Jess Philips – named unprompted by 7 per cent of members – wasn’t in fact that far off Long-Bailey.  But on these early figures, you can see why Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry (both on 3 per cent) and Clive Lewis (on 2 per cent), for all their strengths, may struggle to obtain sufficient CLP nominations.

And you can see why, in the end, discretion proved (by far) the better part of valour for Corbyn loyalists like Ian Lavery (1.5 per cent) and Barry Gardiner (0.5 per cent).

Members’ unprompted responses also give a very strong clue (but don’t of course constitute a sure-fire prediction) as to the likely outcome of the contest for deputy leader, even though we didn’t ask about that particular battle.

That’s because 6 per cent of members made Angela Rayner their pick for the leadership, compared to the handful who named Dawn Butler (0.4 per cent) and Richard Burgon (0.2 per cent).

Of course, it’s always possible that Labour members value a different set of qualities in a deputy – after all, they picked Tom Watson as Corbyn’s number two back in 2015. But Rayner is, on these numbers, going to be hard to beat.

Talking of Corbyn, by the way, leads us to two final points – one trivial (if, perhaps, revealing) and one potentially very important.

On the first point, connoisseurs of all things Labour might enjoy the fact that some three per cent of members expressed the view that Jeremy Corbyn should stay on as leader. Clearly, it’s not just Jane Austen’s heroines who ‘love longest, when all hope is gone.’

On the second point, it is always (always, always) worth recalling that when we conducted the same exercise just after the 2015 election – at a point when we really had no idea who would stand to replace Ed Miliband and so only asked members to write in suggestions rather than pick from a list – just two or three out of around eleven hundred who responded put down Jeremy Corbyn.

That a man whom I doubt even many Labour members had heard of (or at least knew much about) then went on to win the leadership surely goes to show that the coming campaign can make a difference – not least because, for all that the contest can currently be presented as being Keir Starmer’s to lose, by far the most popular choice when we asked members for their unprompted suggestions was a Mr or Ms Don’t Know/Can’t Say, on a stand-out 32 per cent.

In short – and no doubt Starmer’s team knows this as well as anyone – in this Labour Leadership contest, it ain’t over until it’s over.


Originally published at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/01/remember-average-labour-member-isn-t-political-you-think

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‘Keir Starmer, Brexit and the Labour leadership contest’, 10 January 2020.

If – and, in spite of our ESRC-funded Party Members Project survey last week suggesting he was some way ahead of his rivals, it remains a big if – Keir Starmer succeeds Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, then one could well trace his success back to 25 September 2018.

That was the day when, at the Party’s Annual Conference in Liverpool, Starmer, speaking in his capacity as Labour’s Shadow Brexit Policy, earned a standing ovation from members when, in a departure from his agreed text, he not only declared that ‘We must keep all options on the table’ but added ‘And no one is ruling out the option to Remain.’

The leadership was, to put it mildly, none too pleased.

Corbyn and co., having bowed to internal pressure to concede the possibility of a second referendum were still at that stage suggesting it could only be on the terms of any deal rather than offering the public a chance to reverse the result of the vote in 2016.

The vast majority of delegates, however, wanted more. True, many of them had spent a fair bit of their time on the conference floor waving Palestinian rather than EU flags.

But like the party membership more generally, they were overwhelmingly pro-European, pro-People’s Vote, and pro-Remain.

In short, and to borrow from a phrase that emblazoned many a free t-shirt given away in Liverpool that year, they still loved Corbyn but they really hated Brexit.

Starmer, by staying in the Shadow Cabinet rather than flouncing out of it, by patiently working from the inside to pull Labour towards a stance that offered at least a chance of preventing what many in the party regarded (indeed still regard) as the calamity of the UK leaving the European Union, had already won their respect.

But that day he won their hearts, too.

And he carried on winning them by doing what virtually no other Labour politician could do without being condemned as a centrist ‘melt’ or told to ‘join the Tories’ – namely openly defying ‘the absolute boy’.

A couple of months later, Labour’s leader told Der Spiegel that Brexit couldn’t be stopped. Up popped Starmer on SkyNews almost straight afterwards to say that, yes, it could be.

True, Starmer wasn’t ultimately able to push his leader off the fence completely.

And it is hard to believe that the position Labour adopted in its manifesto – that, if elected, it would negotiate its own deal and then put it to a referendum against the option of remaining in the EU without its leader coming down on one side or the other – was one that, in his heart of hearts, he truly supported.

However, Starmer had, most members probably felt, done as much as was humanly possible – especially given how many of those with huge influence over the leadership seemed perfectly happy to see the UK leave either because they were Lexiteers or because they believed that any attempt to stop it happening would cost Labour the election (a belief that Labour’s catastrophic defeat last month appears only to have strengthened).

Whether Starmer has any genuine sympathy with that analysis is surely doubtful.

But nor is he likely to go out of his way to offend anyone who does. He is after all in the Labour leadership contest to win it, not simply to ‘broaden the debate’.

And he knows that there is a significant difference (64% compared to 40% in the final simulated round of voting, to be precise) between his support among Labour members who voted Remain and those who voted to Leave.

True, this is hardly a huge disadvantage given that at least eight out of ten Labour members wanted to stay in the EU. But why risk alienating the minority that didn’t?

He also has to think about the others who will take part in the contest – ‘registered supporters’ and affiliates, be they members of socialist societies or opted-in trade unionists – whose views on Brexit we know less about.

To do that would be to hand the votes of Labour’s leavers to Rebecca Long Bailey, whose support already splits, if we take the final simulated round of voting, 36% to 60% in favour of those members who plumped for Brexit at the 2016 Referendum.

The same concerns, of course, apply to Labour’s other leadership hopefuls.

For instance, Jess Philips, although her support among members seems fairly evenly split (proportionately speaking) between Leavers and Remainers, felt obliged to clarify her position after a television interview with Andrew Marr that was seized upon to claim she was committing Labour to campaign to rejoin the EU.

Just as importantly, anyone who has the faintest chance of emerging as Labour leader in April also needs to think not just about the ‘selectorate’ but the electorate – the millions of voters for whom the leadership contest is little more than a sideshow but often have views on Brexit that contrast sharply with those of Labour’s membership.

Starmer was surely right, as well as shrewd, then, to acknowledge to Marr that ‘We are going to leave the EU in the next few weeks and it is important for all of us, including myself, to recognise that the argument about leave and remain goes with it’ so ‘We have to adjust to that situation; the argument has to move on.’

But just as Brexit isn’t going to go away for the country, it isn’t going to go away for Labour either.

And whoever the party chooses as its leader is going to need to handle the issue a whole lot better than did Jeremy Corbyn.


Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/keir-starmer-brexit-and-the-labour-leadership-contest/

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‘Reflections on releasing political polling results into the big wide world’, QMUL Blog, 3 January 2020

Designing and commissioning a survey and then releasing it into the wild is always a risky business – especially, it seems, if it involves party members.  After all, they are, almost by definition, incredibly passionate about their politics – so passionate that, if the survey doesn’t show what they’d like it to show, then they can get very angry very quickly.

The Party Members Project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council is run by me and Professor Paul Webb (University of Sussex) – the co-authors (with Monica Poletti) of a recently published book, Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century.

The results we released on the Labour leadership race reflect the responses of 1059 Labour Party members to questions that formed only a small part of a more detailed questionnaire, which, with the help of YouGov, we have asked members of six political parties at the last three elections.

But obviously, both in the view of broadcast and print media, they are incredibly newsworthy – and, judging by some of the social media responses, pretty controversial, especially, it appears, if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of people planning on voting in the contest to decide who is going to try to turn around Labour’s fortunes after its worst electoral defeat since 1935.

The survey which, because it asked respondents to rank candidates, allowed us to simulate the sequential rounds inherent in the alternative vote system used by Labour to elect its leader. It revealed that the front-runner, right now anyway, would appear to be Keir Starmer rather than the so-called ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey.

That news – understandably – did not go down too well with those hoping to see either her (or perhaps another left-wing candidate who has not yet signalled their definite intention to run, such as Ian Lavery) triumph and therefore carry on where Mr Corbyn left off.

Cue what by now has become a familiar chorus.

First, it’s suggested that no-one should expect anything better from a polling organization ‘owned by Tories’, forgetting that the very same firm got the 2015 and 2016 Labour leadership contests (won of course by Mr Corbyn) pretty much spot on. This is despite the fact that YouGov’s samples are made up of self-declared party members recruited from its voter panel rather than from an official list of members provided by the party itself.

Second come the tweets arguing the survey should be dismissed since it covers the views of only just over a thousand out of around half a million Labour Party members – an objection often accompanied by the observation that neither the person tweeting nor anybody they know was asked.  This, of course, forgets that pollsters routinely use the views of just over a thousand voters to provide a snapshot of how tens of millions of people feel about political issues.

For anyone who has trouble understanding why this is possible, perhaps the best analogy out there is with a blood test.  An adult human body contains anything between nine and twelve pints of blood.  Should a doctor want to find out whether there’s something wrong with said human, she’ll only need to take the equivalent of one or two teaspoons, not one or two pints, to conduct the diagnostic tests required.

Often – to pursue the analogy a little further – those tests are used both to identify what’s going on but also to rule out other potential issues.  And in some ways one of the most interesting things for me about our survey is that it suggests that some of the things many assumed might be important in this contest may not turn out to be after all.

True, the Leave-Remain divide seems to be important: it looks as if Labour’s overwhelmingly pro-European membership really appreciated Starmer’s dogged determination not to flounce out of the shadow cabinet but to hang on in there in order to drag Jeremy Corbyn towards a more pro-Remain (or at least pro-Referendum) position.

On the other hand, although there’s been a lot of talk about it being time that Labour had a female leader, gender doesn’t seem to be playing much of a role here: Labour’s female members are not particularly inclined towards female candidates.

There’s also been talk, in the wake of Labour’s loss of seats in the North of England, about Labour needing to avoid picking another leader from London. Labour’s northern members, however, seem to be just as keen as members from other parts of the country on Starmer, a Londoner.

Class doesn’t seem to be much of a dividing line either. Initially, most candidates’ support is not that much higher or lower among Labour’s middle class (ABC1) or working class (C2DE) members than it is among the membership as a whole.  That said, Long-Bailey does better among working class members than among members as a whole, while Starmer seems to do better among middle class members.  This is no great disadvantage for Starmer, however, because some three-quarters of Labour members can be counted as middle class ABC1 voters.

Age doesn’t appear to be hugely significant either – at least in general – although it is noticeable that Long-Bailey is more popular among younger members than among older members, whereas the reverse is true for Starmer.  That said, Starmer is still more popular among younger members than Long-Bailey is or, indeed, any of the other candidates.

But, but, but.  All this reflects what Labour Party members were feeling over Christmas.  Things can and inevitably will change.

Some potential candidates who we suggested to members won’t end up running.  Others we didn’t suggest might well do.  And not all of those who want to run can be confident of securing the nominations required to enter the ballot.  Moreover, members won’t be the only people voting: they will be joined by members of socialist societies and some (though not all) members of trade unions affiliated to Labour; they will also be joined by people entitled to vote not as fully paid-up members but as ‘registered supporters’ – a category that has the potential to be manipulated in order to favour one faction’s candidate over the other.

Finally, as the 2015 Labour leadership showed, the campaign matters, momentum (small-m and big-M!) matters, and so, too, does personality.  Labour needs someone who can take the fight to a big character, Boris Johnson, big time.  That might be Starmer – a forensic parliamentary performer who has, unlike any party leader I can think of, also run a national organization before coming into politics.  But it could just as well be someone preternaturally prepared to tell it like it is.  Don’t be surprised, then, if someone like Jess Phillips (who, incidentally, came third in our simulation) turns out to be this contest’s proverbial dark horse.


Originally published at https://www.qmul.ac.uk/media/news/2019/hss/reflections-on-releasing-political-polling-results-into-the-big-wide-world.html

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‘Will the new Tory intake help to build a more progressive party? Don’t count on it’, Guardian, 19 December 2019.

Each general election brings with it a bunch of new MPs itching to make their mark – especially if, as in 2019, it results in a big turnover of seats. And this one has given us a new intake of 140, nearly 100 of whom are taking their places on the Conservative benches, a third of them from the so-called “red wall” seats gained from Labour on 12 December.

Encouragingly, a fair few of these new Tory MPs, such as 24-year-old Sara Britcliffe, who represents Hyndburn in Lancashire, are young and female (eight of the new Conservative intake are under 30). And a number of them are from the LGBT community – including Carshalton’s Elliot Colburn, pictured in the papers kissing his boyfriend after the results were declared. Many are also, like North Norfolk’s Duncan Baker, hyper-local to their constituency – which is what voters always tell researchers is actually most important to them. The Tories bet, correctly, on that improving their chances, particularly in the north.

More depressingly perhaps, at least for those who worry about the rise of the so-called “political class”, is the fact that the new intake includes a number of former special advisers – nine (by my reckoning) on the Tory side, although only one elected (probably tellingly) in a northern seat. Recent history suggests they will be fast-tracked, leaving fellow newbies, including those with local government experience, behind in their wake.

But even those MPs will find that the odds are stacked against anybody from the new intake achieving political celebrity status any time soon. There’s only so much room, after all, on the frontbenches – or in the high-profile select committees and television shows that present the ambitious newbie with an alternative route to stardom.

Standing out from the crowd, however, isn’t the only way that incoming MPs can have an influence. True, being touted early on as the cream of the crop by talent-spotting lobby journalists is no doubt a terrific boost to one’s ego, as well as to one’s chances of advancement. But the crop itself can sometimes stand out, too: while some parliamentary intakes over the years have been written off as unremarkable, others are hailed as vintage. And the law of averages probably means that the more newbies are borne in on the incoming tide, the more likely it is that a particular intake will be seen as something special.

The huge swing to Labour in 1945, for instance, brought into the Commons many of the “new men” (and back then, they were mostly men) such as Michael Foot and Harold Wilson. Their combination of relative youth, Oxbridge education and wartime service set them up nicely to become major figures in British politics for over a quarter of a century.

The same could also be said for their Tory counterparts such as Enoch Powell, and the equally important (if nowadays less well-remembered) Reggie Maudling and Iain Macleod. All of them entered the Commons in 1950 – partly as a result of their efforts, as “backroom boys” (and, again, they were all boys), to rebrand the Conservative party.

Fast forwarding a little, 1997 was also an important year – mainly because the new intake saw a doubling of the numbers of female MPs in the Commons. This was due mostly to Labour’s efforts to boost their participation, and the number of women elected to its benches increased from 37 to 101, earning them the sexist soubriquet “Blair’s Babes”.

But the significance – especially the eventual significance – of an intake doesn’t necessarily depend on a big win. Timing matters, too. Labour’s disastrous performance last week is already being compared to 1983. But that year’s Labour intake featured both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair (as well as including Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Howard, who went on to lead their respective parties to dreadful defeats). Lacking much competition, they rose quickly and to great effect.

Likewise, both George Osborne and David Cameron were part of the new intake in 2001 – a very bad year, electorally speaking, for the Tories. (Mind you, so was “failing” Chris Grayling.)

How, then, will this intake be remembered? Ultimately, the key question is what impact it will have on the party’s future direction. Many observers seem to be making two assumptions on this score. The first is that Conservative newbies will be so grateful to the prime minister for bringing them in on his coattails that they will give him an easy ride. The second is that they will be so concerned about hanging on to their marginal seats that they will ensure he cleaves to the end-of-austerity centre ground and avoids the kind of no-deal Brexit that would presumably hit their constituents hard.

Both assumptions could well prove mistaken. For one thing, MPs have grown more and more rebellious over the years: why should this intake be any different? For another, getting yourself selected as a candidate by a Tory membership which, broadly speaking, wants to keep the state out of the economy, immigrants out of the country, and the UK out of the clutches of the EU, means you probably think pretty much the same way, too.

Mild one-nationers, then? Don’t bet on it.


Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/19/tory-intake-young-mps

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‘The real Boris Johnson: one-nation Tory or raging populist?’, Observer, 15 December 2019.

Boris Johnson has long been a familiar face in British politics, so why does his ideology remain, in the words of his role-model Winston Churchill, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”? It’s a puzzle to which there are two, and possibly three solutions, none of which are necessarily mutually exclusive.

The first possibility – and probably the one that holds most sway, even among many of his admirers – is that when it comes to Johnson and his principles, there is, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, simply no “there” there. According to this take, the prime minister is no more and no less than an amalgam of ambition and ego. Having conquered the dizzy (and for him, anyway, increasingly well-remunerated) heights of broadsheet column-writing, Johnson simply turned to politics as a glutton turns to dessert.

The second possibility – almost as widely canvassed as the first and clearly highly compatible with it – is that it suits Johnson’s essentially Machiavellian purposes to defy definition and to keep everyone guessing. What better way, after all, for the politician-as-prince to expand their circle of potential allies and preserve maximum room for manoeuvre so as to avoid being encumbered with positions and policy commitments that later on risk becoming unpopular or else just plain inconvenient?

The third possibility is somewhat more prosaic but may ultimately come closer to the truth – a truth obscured precisely because it is effectively hiding in plain sight. It is that, for all that he can be cast (with the presidential seal of approval, mind) as a Trumpian radical right-wing populist, Johnson is not so much “the special one” as a pretty bog-standard British rightwinger.

And as such, he is a politician who intuitively appreciates (with a little help from his friends, most obviously one Dominic Cummings and a variety of Fleet Street’s finest), how best to appeal to the millions of Brits (13,966,565 of them last Thursday anyway) for whom many of the Conservative party’s prejudices and presumptions are simply common sense.

Most fundamental of these is the idea that Britain is, can be, and should be, Great – the clue, as they say, is in the name. To call that belief a sense of manifest destiny would be an exaggeration. But it is a patriotic attachment to the idea (however illusory) of an island nation, albeit one with global interests and reach, that is fundamentally unique and, yes, better than many of its closest neighbours, especially those unfortunate enough not to speak English – or else to speak it with a Scottish or southern Irish accent.

But this is far from the only Tory truth to be held as self-evident by Johnson and those who voted for him. Just as important is the idea that the state, whose first duty is to uphold law and order, should neither grow too big nor try to do for people what they should do for themselves – with the number of people seen as deserving of help taken to be much smaller (since at root it includes only the very elderly, the visibly infirm and, where they’re not “feral”, children) than is probably the case.

This supposed common sense also applies to tax and spending. Both, like government regulation, should be kept as low as possible since the money is presumed to come ultimately from individuals and businesses who know better what to do with their hard-earned cash than a bunch of bureaucrats in Whitehall or in the town hall. Nationally, the sums, to coin yet another cliche, have to add up. Austerity is therefore a regrettable but wholly rational response when things are tight.

All this links Johnson firmly with his predecessors – Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May. So does (with Thatcher as the exception that proves the rule) his eagerness – on full display in his remarks in Downing Street on Friday – to employ that emptiest of empty signifiers, “one-nation Conservatism”.

Each and every one of the prime minister’s predecessors, remember, made similarly heartwarming speeches on the steps of No 10 about healing a divided country, only to walk through its shiny black door and proceed to do pretty much the opposite.

The real Boris Johnson? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.


Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/14/boris-johnson-one-nation-tory-or-raging-populist

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‘Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are set to disappoint their supporters’, Financial Times, 7 December 2019.

“I’m not going back to the wilderness . . . We are here for the long run, and we will deal with whatever the result of the election is”, Jon Lansman, founding leader of Momentum, the 40,000-strong praetorian guard of Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said last week.

This spells trouble, whichever way you look at it.

In the unlikely event that Mr Corbyn becomes prime minister on Friday, Momentum and Labour’s wider grassroots membership of about 450,000 will be heading for at least a degree of disappointment.

Quite how they would handle their dismay at the inevitable confrontation with reality, when the spending taps don’t get turned on as fast as they hoped, would be fascinating.

But barring a bizarre rush to the barricades prompted by Boris Johnson’s refusal to endure a grilling by Andrew Neil, the more probable outcome of this general election would seem to be a Tory majority, possibly even a pretty comfortable one.

The consequences of that for Labour and its grassroots members — and indeed the country — are even more worrying.

It’s possible, of course, that a crushing defeat for Labour could (as the party’s remaining centrists will surely be hoping) bring its members, or at least some of them, to their senses.

But would it? More probable is that Labour’s membership, as well as those Labour MPs and affiliated trade union leaders who have co-operated with Mr Corbyn, will double down, blame the media and the “melts” for their idol’s defeat, and choose a leader carved in his image — one equally determined, come what may, to convert a country that doesn’t seem to want socialism.

In short: five more years of waiting in vain for the centre-left’s resurrection.

Does that mean, however, that Britain’s centre-right is sitting pretty for the foreseeable future? Not necessarily.

It’s hard to see how Mr Johnson stays in office in a hung parliament unless he offers the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National party a second referendum, which in itself could be career-ending. But if he gets his majority, the Conservative party’s grassroots members will be feeling pretty smug.

It was they, after all, who chose Mr Johnson as party leader and prime minister. By taking the UK out of the EU at the end of January, he will be carrying out their dearest wish.

But what then? No one serious believes the Johnson government, or any government, could get a decent trade deal with the EU done within a year.

Leaving without a deal would be a hard blow to the local economy in many of the constituencies that look set to turn from red to blue in this election.

Given all this, Mr Johnson will no doubt try to find some way of in effect extending the transition period beyond the end of 2020 in order to save the country — and, of course, himself — from the ensuing blowback.

In other words (and at least when it comes to “getting Brexit done”) a putative Conservative government is no less likely than a Labour equivalent to let down its most dedicated grassroots supporters. Indeed, it probably should let them down — and not just in the short-term.

Since the summer, Mr Johnson has essentially turned the Conservative party into an ersatz Brexit party — a rightwing, radical populist outfit precision-engineered to win the support of less educated, less well-heeled, and less socially liberal voters.

And he has been able to do so knowing that, owing to their distaste for Mr Corbyn, enough of his party’s better-off, better-educated and more socially liberal voters will stick with the Tories.

As long as Labour stays stuck in a mire of its own making, this strategy may well continue to work.

But if and when the opposition does get its act together — and history suggests this almost always happens, eventually — the Conservative party will, as the composition of the UK’s population continues to change in ways that probably favour progressives over reactionaries, face a different country.

The UK of the future will have demographics (and therefore prevailing values) very different to those of the rank and file party members who chose Mr Johnson as the nation’s head of government, or those of many of the voters who look like handing him a majority next week.

But Labour supporters looking for a crumb of long-term comfort in what looks set to be some serious short-term pain should not celebrate these better prospects too early.

Having pivoted to the right before this general election, Mr Johnson — a politician of no fixed principles — could don again the do-something, diversity-friendly face he wore as London Mayor after it.

The question is whether, whatever their own misgivings about the possibility of him doing just that, and about extending the Brexit transition period, the PM’s fans in the Tory grassroots (and, indeed, on the ideologically-refreshed Conservative backbenches at Westminster) would give him the benefit of the doubt.

Such is his star-power hold over them right now, I rather suspect they would. How long that hold can last, though, is the real question.


Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/7ecc340c-1816-11ea-b869-0971bffac109

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‘Brexit shows how the populist right can be powerful without winning office’, Washington Post, 2 December 2019.

The populist radical right wins power in different countries in different ways. In Hungary and Poland, what were initially mainstream conservative parties with populist tendencies drifted inexorably, and now, it seems, irrevocably, into illiberalism once in government.

Brexit provides perhaps the most striking illustration yet of populist radical right parties — first the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and then its effective successor the Brexit Party — wielding, and indeed effectively achieving, power without winning office.

These parties have ensured their pet issue — Britain’s membership of the European Union — is now the major dividing line in British politics. How did this happen?

In part, the answer is time and chance. Had politicians made slightly different choices at key junctures, things might have turned out very differently. However, there is also a structural explanation that many people prefer to ignore.

The “respectable” mainstream right and the unashamedly radical right often have far more in common than either of them care to admit. The UK Conservative Party’s choices have been shaped by its relationship and rivalry with radical right-wing parties.

Brexit is a populist project

The perceived message of the 2016 referendum result was that supposedly Europhile elites had ignored and even betrayed the wishes of ordinary people.

Those who were ruled had had the opportunity to express themselves through direct rather than representative democracy, sending their rulers a message they couldn’t ignore and would never forget.

Should those in charge — the “political class,” “the establishment,” “the experts” — ever try to roll back changes, they would be swept from office by fresh faces unencumbered by past involvement in government and dedicated, tribune-like, to implementing the will of the people.

This threat, rather than any long-held ideological conviction, explains why Boris Johnson, Britain’s newly installed prime minister, claims he is willing to see the country leave the European Union without any deal to minimize the disruption.

Johnson is not the first Conservative leader to be forced to make this kind of gamble: His predecessors Theresa May (2016-2019) and David Cameron (2005-2016) found their choices were similarly constrained.

What is most interesting is that they were not forced into this position by the Conservatives’ traditional rival, the center-left Labour Party, but by a political force — the populist radical right — that has only ever won two out of 650 or so seats in the House of Commons.

Conservatives like to talk up populist issues 

To understand how this happened, it’s necessary to understand how British conservatism works. Conservative politicians have long been skeptical about claims for the benefits of ethnic diversity and rehabilitation rather than punishment.

They usually prefer “common sense” solutions and patriotic pride to purported expertise and naive internationalism. They have also tended to place more faith in leaders.

This helps explain why they are so often tempted to appeal to voters’ nativist, nationalist and authoritarian attitudes.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that issues like crime, immigration and foreign policy/overseas aid can help them split the center left’s traditional electoral coalition of the cosmopolitan, liberal middle class and the less cosmopolitan, less liberal working class.

In the past, however, conservatives didn’t fully yield to temptation.

Since mainstream center-right parties were often in government and needed to be responsible rather than merely responsive to their voters, they politicized wedge issues but only occasionally genuinely prioritized them. Conservative politicians flirted with populism but rarely went further.

This opened room for the radical right 

Conservatives’ squeamishness created a space for more radical right-wingers — populist politicians willing not just to stir the pot and keep it simmering but also to turn up the heat and see it boil over.

These more radical politicians appealed to voters (and tabloid media) who wanted to go back to a society that was less inclusive, less insecure, less tolerant, less politically correct, less apologetic and, for some at least, whiter.

These populist politicians were unlikely to make it into government. However, they could and did press their conservative counterparts to actually live up to their rhetoric.

Panic over Nigel Farage’s UKIP, together with the need to keep the Conservatives together, explains Cameron’s promise in 2013 to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union.

Even though UKIP won no seats in the 2015 general election, it did win nearly 4 million votes, ensuring the referendum would actually be held a year later.

Farage’s influence on the referendum led Cameron’s successor, May, to agree to leave not just the E.U. but also its single market and customs union.

When Farage’s new political vehicle, the Brexit Party, took 30.5 percent of the vote in the 2019 European Parliament elections, compared to the Conservatives’ measly 8.8 percent, it was almost inevitable that May would step down and be replaced by a “no-deal” Brexiteer like Johnson.

Farage’s parties have played a huge role in driving the Conservatives to the right, but only because the differences between them and the Tories have only ever been of degree rather than kind.

It is possible that the Conservative Party will revert to a more centrist “one nation Toryism” once Brexit has actually happened.

However, it may also be that the Conservative Party has gotten so used to sounding like a radical populist party to protect its flank that it has, for all intents and purposes, become one.

Originally published at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/12/02/brexit-shows-how-tiny-party-can-have-big-consequences/


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‘Who is winning the ground war in London?’ (with Philip Cowley), Times, 6 December 2019.

Everyone knows that Labour has the largest grassroots membership of any British political party, aided by thousands of keen Momentum activists. Everyone knows that as a result they will out-perform the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats when it comes to what is known as the election ground war — the grunt work of knocking on doors and talking to voters.

Drawing on responses to the Mile End Institute’s latest YouGov survey of voters in London, it may be that, once again, what everyone knows isn’t necessarily right.

At first flush, it does indeed appear that Labour is on top in the ground war in London. The graphic shows how Londoners have had various forms of contact from the three main parties in the last three weeks.

ground war

Respondents were more likely to report having received leaflets or letters from Labour (47 per cent) than their two main rivals (28 per cent and 34 per cent); they are more likely to have seen Labour adverts online (11 per cent, compared to 6 per cent and 7 per cent) and more likely to have received emails from Labour (6 per cent compared to 4 per cent).

The difference is also clear when it comes to the activities that require people volunteering rather than stuff that can be outsourced or done centrally.

The figure for those who say they have been called by phone or spoken to on the doorstep is 11 per cent for Labour — about double the equivalent for the Conservatives and Lib Dems.

This is probably explained, at least in part, by the fact that Labour can call on an estimated 450,000 members, compared to the Tories’ 180,000 and the Lib Dems’ 105,000, even if some leaflet deliveries — like some phone banking — can be outsourced to private companies.

True, a full fifth of Londoners (21 per cent) report no contact from any of the three main parties. But the number who say they have had nothing from Labour (36 per cent) is notably lower than for either the Conservatives (55 per cent) or Liberal Democrats (50 per cent).

Interestingly, for all the attention currently being paid to the digital campaign battle, it is old fashioned bits of paper pushed or mailed through doors that dominate, being reported at least four times as often as digital ads.

And yes, younger voters are more likely to have been contacted online — 18 per cent of those aged 18-24 say they have seen an online ad from Labour, compared to 5 per cent of those aged 65.

But even for younger voters it is leaflets and letters that have been the primary contact mechanism. Digital campaigning is now clearly in second place as a campaigning tool, but it is still a long way behind.

Of course, campaigns — successful ones, anyway — will focus most of their resources on the constituencies most likely to change hands.

At the last election, the average majority in London’s 73 constituencies was just over 30 per cent and, while in an ideal world a party would campaign everywhere, in reality resources are scare and opportunity costs very real.

So the second set of figures show the equivalent figures, but just for marginal constituencies — those that in 2017 had majorities of under 15 per cent.

In our survey, they account for just 282 respondents, so we need to be suitably cautious about our conclusions; but still, a few things stand out.

The first is that contact rates in these constituencies are indeed higher overall. Almost all of the figures for the different types of contact in this table are higher than their equivalents in the first table.

The percentage of respondents reporting no contact at all falls to just 10 per cent in these marginal seats.

ground war

The second, which perhaps is less expected and more worrying for Labour, is that Labour’s ground war advantage largely vanishes once you focus just on marginal seats. Most of the figures are broadly equivalent from party to party.

The percentage saying they have had no contact from each party is basically identical — at either 31 per cent or 32 per cent.

Even for the things requiring on-the-ground volunteers, the scores are pretty similar between Labour and Conservative: 18 per cent report a call or home visit from Labour, compared to 15 per cent for the Conservatives.

This conclusion holds even if we define marginality in different ways — by looking at, say the most marginal seats (those with just a 5 per cent majority) or those which The Times YouGov MRP model predicts will be the marginal seats come polling day.

In the former, for example, the figure for no contact is 31 per cent for the Conservatives, and 29 per cent for Labour (with Labour’s home visits at 16 per cent, the Conservatives on 14 per cent).

In the latter, the figures are 35 per cent for the Conservatives, and 31 per cent for Labour (with Labour’s home visits at 15 per cent, the Conservatives on 13 per cent).

This slim Labour advantage is perhaps not what we would expect given the parties’ sizes.

Yes, Labour has a more impressive ground operation across all of London but in the seats where the election will be won or lost, its advantage appears to be slim at best.

Of course, these figures don’t measure intensity of campaigning (one leaflet is not the same as six leaflets, but will be so counted here), yet alone its effectiveness.

It may also be that Labour’s ground operation has stepped up since the polling was conducted — and that its bigger membership really comes into its own on polling day when what counts is the kind of “get out the vote” activity that really does require boots on the ground.

But, on the evidence so far, in London at least, the Conservatives appear to be pretty much matching Labour where it matters.


Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/who-is-winning-the-ground-war-in-london-0p2nj8ldj

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‘Why is the Conservative Party so good at winning?’, Bloomberg, 18 November 2019.

British Conservatives can claim to be the world’s oldest and most successful political party. They’ve been written off more than a few times in the 200-plus years they’ve been around. But they’ve always bounced back. Their secret? The ability and willingness to reinvent themselves – even when that means giving up what supposedly defines them and the values they hold most dear.

The party’s arch pragmatism doesn’t mean that it’s immune from ideological preoccupations. Indeed one can look back at the party’s history and find plenty of examples: refusing to extend the vote franchise in the 1830s, holding onto the British Empire in the 1950s, joining the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union, in the 1960s and, after the global financial crisis of 2007/8, insisting on austerity. It’s just that those ideas, held so passionately at the time, are also mutable.

The Tory party does have a basic disposition – namely, the desire to defend private property and personal liberty against a state that, except when it comes to its core task of maintaining domestic and national security, should be kept from growing too large and too expensive over the long term, primarily by ensuring that it is run by Conservatives rather than their opponents. But anything above and beyond that tends to be a temporary obsession or else a temporary solution.

More often than not, the problem to be solved is an electoral one. It’s often better, think most Conservatives, to compromise in order to capture or stay in office. Even if one is forced to adopt some of the policies of one’s opponents, once in power one can at least limit any damage those policies might do and any financial cost to taxpayers they may involve.

Take the immediate postwar period. After Winston Churchill unexpectedly lost the 1945 election, and with it the chance to unwind the expansion of the state brought about by the need to defeat Hitler, it quickly became apparent to all but the most antediluvian Tory that there could be no going back.

Unless and until the union-friendly, essentially social democratic regime ushered in by the Labour Party could be shown to have failed those it was designed to benefit – something that was to take some 30 years and a crusader like Margaret Thatcher to achieve – then it would have to be met at least half way.

Consequently, from 1951, when the Conservatives (still under Churchill but now armed with an updated, more moderate manifesto) returned to office, the Conservatives managed to win a share of the working class (and union-member) vote not just by dint of being in office during Europe’s postwar economic boom but by appeasing organized labour, ensuring wage-earners could afford all the new consumer goods that suddenly became available.

And while the welfare state may have been kept on relatively short rations, it was never seriously threatened, with the overwhelmingly popular state-run National Health Service seen as off-limits even by the otherwise mostly free-market of Tories.

And as for those temporary obsessions – the preservation of empire, say, or becoming part of ‘Europe’ – all too often they were misinterpreted at the time as somehow integral to Toryism. The reality was more prosaic: They were sacred cows that the party ultimately proved willing to slaughter as time and perceived partisan advantage dictated.

Perhaps the best example of all in this respect is the fact that, after insisting that anything even approaching democracy would be the death of England in 1832, it was the Tories, who – under Benjamin Disraeli – passed the next great reform act some 30 years later, doubling the number of men (including many working-class men) eligible to vote.

And, after decades spent styling itself the party of empire, beginning with Disraeli himself proclaiming Queen Victoria “Empress of India,” it was a Conservative government under Harold Macmillan which in the late 1950s oversaw the bulk of its dismantlement – the same Harold Macmillan who set the Tories on the path to becoming, for a quarter of a century at least, “the party of Europe,” until from the late 1980s onwards it gradually ceased to be so.

Which brings us neatly to a general election which is supposedly all about voters giving the current Conservative leader and prime minister, Boris Johnson, a mandate and a majority to “get Brexit done.”

In order to persuade them to do that, however, the Conservatives have suddenly changed tack on public services, like health and education. Having spent nearly a decade in government since 2010 insisting on the absolute necessity of austerity and denying (very much in keeping with the gospel according to Thatcher) that there was any such thing as a “magic money tree,” they suddenly seem to have discovered a huge one in the back garden of Number 10 Downing Street and are giving it a quite a shake.

Many traditional small-c conservatives are now anxious that the Tories’ new-found enthusiasm for spending completes their transmogrification from mainstream, fiscally orthodox conservatism to devil-may-care radical right-wing populism.

It is certainly true that if the election goes according to plan Boris Johnson will be obliged to deliver at least some of what many of his new MPs will have promised voters. Still, conservatives need not worry. The party’s history is replete with switches and shifts.

If that history is any guide, the new look won’t last long. And — a prophecy that will worry another kind of conservative — even its Europhobia may eventually pass. When it comes to the Conservatives, whatever we see now is rarely forever.


Originally published at https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-11-18/why-u-k-conservatives-are-so-good-at-winning

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