‘New party chairman Brandon Lewis will struggle to revive the shrivelled Tory grassroots’, Telegraph, 8 January 2018.

Wondering whether you were, in fact, first pick for the job might not be the best way to start as Chair of the Conservative Party. But it’s not the biggest worry for Brandon Lewis, who after an embarrassing Twaccidnet has just been named as Patrick McLoughlin’s successor .

Of far more concern to Mr Lewis should be the state of the Tory grassroots. The Conservatives, it seems, may well have fewer members not just than Labour but the SNP and the Lib Dems. And, from their responses to a comprehensive survey carried out by the Party members Project based at Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, it looks like they’re neither particularly happy nor particularly active. They don’t look and sound much like 21st Century Britain either.

These problems might well be related and almost certainly harm the party’s electoral chances. But they also represent an awkward dilemma. And they might not be easily resolved by top-down solutions in reshuffles.

Labour members in our survey were more than twice as likely as Tory members to believe they have a significant say on policy

How are they related? Well, take age and activism. The fact that the average Conservative Party member is, according to our recently released research, in his (over two thirds of the membership is male) late fifties, as well as the fact that getting on for half of all Conservative members are over 65, probably helps explain why, at the last general election, Labour’s rank-and-file did a lot more for their party online than did the Tories’.

Why that harms the party’s electoral chances is pretty obvious. You don’t have to be a digital native to realise that social media is going to play an increasingly important role in campaigning, not least because it’s also a means of encouraging people to get involved in more traditional activities, such as canvassing, which seem to make a measurable difference, especially in close races.

So what’s the dilemma? It’s this: getting Tory members more active may well involve persuading them that they have more of a say in the party’s direction and that the leadership takes them more seriously than currently they think it does; but, if members are given more say, they may push the Conservative Party further away from the voters – especially the younger, relatively moderate, ethnically and sexually diverse voters – it may well need to win in the future.

Labour members in our survey were more than twice as likely as Tory members to believe they have a significant say on policy. They were also much less likely to feel that the leadership didn’t pay much attention to them – a feeling expressed by getting on for a third of Tory members. And while six out of 10 of the latter felt the Conservative Party encouraged them to get involved, for Labour it was more than eight out of 10.

Parties, like businesses, are complex organizations, prone to an inertia that is both cultural and institutional

But if Conservative members’ views had more weight, then what price the fact that four out of 10 of them aren’t happy with gay marriage? Or that only one in 10 thinks austerity has gone too far and only two out of 10 agree that ordinary people don’t get their fair share of the nation’s wealth? Or that fully three-quarters of them think that young people today don’t have enough respect for traditional British values?

Conservative leaders have already bowed to the views of the membership (some 70 per cent of whom voted Leave) on Brexit. Presenting the electorate with a set of policies even more in tune with members’ views in order to encourage them to help out more at election time could prove counterproductive in the long run.

In any case, parties, like businesses, are complex organizations, prone to an inertia that is both cultural and institutional. If anyone hopes that the new Chairman can swiftly turn things around by knocking a few heads together and making a few inspiring speeches is in for a big disappointment. Let’s hope Mr Lewis appreciates just how hard his new job is going to be.


Originally published at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/01/08/new-party-chairman-brandon-lewis-will-struggle-revive-shrivelled/

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‘Normal people don’t join political parties’, CityAM, 5 January 2018.

Am I normal? Are you? Is any of us?

And what is “normal” anyway? To be honest, I haven’t a clue. But I do know what is not normal, and that’s being a member of a political party.

It’s something that fewer than two out of every 100 adults entitled to vote in the UK choose to do.

Moreover, those who take their politics seriously enough to join a party are abnormal – or at least unrepresentative – in other ways too.

Queen Mary University of London’s Mile End Institute has just published a short study called Grassroots, based on surveys conducted by YouGov for the ESRC-funded Party Members Project just after last year’s General Election.

Covering rank and file members of the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP, it provides a comprehensive portrait of who they are, what they think, and what they do.

The findings suggest that those parties have a fair bit to do – especially if they want to look (and perhaps even think) more like the people they aim to govern.

That’s especially true of the Conservatives. Tory grassroots members tend to hold slightly more radical views than those who simply vote for their party, although that’s also true of their counterparts in the other parties.

But they also hold views on some social and moral issues that, as the electorate grows more liberal over time, may leave them – and their party – looking distinctly behind the curve.

Those attitudes are, at least in part, a function of age. The average age of the Conservative party member may not be anywhere near the figure of 72 that one hears regularly bandied about in the media. But the fact that it’s actually around 57 nevertheless obscures two important facts.

The first is that getting on for half of all Tory members are over 65 – a much bigger proportion than is the case for the other parties, and something that may already be impacting on the party’s ability to campaign on the ground and, in particular, online.

The second is that the other parties don’t have that much to write home about on this score either. Their members may not be quite as old, but the average Labour, Lib Dem and SNP members would still appear to be in his early fifties.

And, yes, you did read that right – his. All four parties have a majority male membership, although Labour’s grassroots (47 per cent of whom are female) are not that far off gender parity – in marked contrast to the Tories, seven out of 10 of whom are men.

As for achieving ethnic representation – forget about it. BAME groups now make up around 13 per cent of the population, but 97 per cent of party members are white British.

When it comes to class, the vast majority of them (three quarters of Labour and SNP members, and nearly nine out of 10 Conservatives and Lib Dems) are in occupational categories ABC1 – compared to only just over half of the population.

All this would be easy to ignore if party members had no influence on rest of us. But they do: they choose their party’s leaders and its MPs and, directly or indirectly, they also influence its policies.

Without them, Jeremy Corbyn would still be a backbench non-entity and Brexit just a bad dream. What a thought.


Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/278243/normal-people-dont-join-political-parties

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‘Tories are older, whiter and more authoritarian’, politics.co.uk, 5 January 2018

One of the many paradoxes about British politics right now is the fact that those who belong to the party which formally grants its members least say over policy can plausibly claim to have exercised the most influence on us all in recent years.

Unlike their counterparts in the Labour party, the SNP, and especially the Lib Dems, rank-and-file members of the Conservative party still don’t get to vote on its policy platform.  Yet they have arguably played a big part in the Tories’ transformation from ‘the party of Europe’ to the bringer-in of Brexit.

By making their growing hostility to the EU clear, week-in-and-week-out, to their MPs, and by selecting more and more candidates who shared that same hostility, they helped push David Cameron into promising a referendum and then deserted him in droves when it was finally held.

According to YouGov, Tory voters broke 61-39 for Leave in June 2016.  If Mr Cameron was expecting a little more loyalty from his own members, he was severely disappointed.  Research conducted with my colleagues Paul Webb and Monica Poletti of the ESRC-funded Party Members Project based at Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University found that 70% of them let their leader down and voted Leave.

Since then, Conservative grassroots members’ views on Europe appear only to have hardened – and, as a new report from the Project published yesterday by the Mile End Institute shows, they are one of the many things that set the Tory rank and file apart from the members of other political parties.

While at least eight out of ten Labour, SNP and Lib Dem grassroots members favour a second referendum on Europe, just one in ten Tory members agrees. Nine out of ten members of the other parties support continued membership of the single market and the customs union, but only a quarter of grassroots Tories would like to see such a soft Brexit.

Tory members views on economic issues are also strikingly different from those of their counterparts in other parties.  On the economy, 11% of Tory members agree that austerity has gone too far, compared with 98% of Labour members, 93% of SNP members, and 75% of Lib Dem members. And on the question of economic fairness, only 19% of Tory members agree that ordinary working people don’t get their fair share of the nation’s wealth, compared with 97% of Labour members, 95% of SNP members and 79% of Lib Dem members.

It’s the same story on social issues: Conservative members hold far more authoritarian attitudes than members of the other three parties. Just over half of Tory party members support the death penalty compared to under ten per cent of Labour and Lib Dem members and a fifth of SNP members.  Three-quarters agree that young people don’t have enough respect for traditional British values – a view shared by only a fifth of the members of the other parties in the study.

An overwhelming majority of Tory members (84%) believe that schools should teach children to obey authority, compared with 31% of Labour members and 38% of SNP and Lib Dem members. Tory members are also considerably more sceptical about the benefits of immigration – and they are outliers on gay marriage, with only four in ten supporting it compared to at least eight out of ten members of other parties.

Part of the explanation for these marked differences in attitudes and ideology may lie in demography.  Members of all four parties are more likely to be male, older, middle-class, and white than the average Briton – but Tory members are even more unrepresentative than their counterparts in the other parties. For instance, 71% are men, compared with 53% of Labour members, 57% of SNP members and 63% of Lib Dems.

The average age of party members is 57 for the Tories, 54 for the SNP, 53 for Labour, and 52 for the Liberal Democrats – and just one in 20 party members in the UK is aged between 18-24.  But the averages disguise some significant differences – not least that 44% of Tory members are aged 65 or over, compared with 29 per cent of Labour members, 30% of Lib Dem members and 32% of SNP members.

We should be careful, however, not to assume that Tory members are stranded so far to the ageing, white, authoritarian, eurosceptic right that they are completely unrepresentative of the party’s voters.  After all, the party won well over 40% support at the last election, with a lot of it coming from older and white British voters, from Leavers, and from those with small-c Conservative values and a belief in a smaller, less active state.

The question is how the Conservatives will cope when, as seems likely, the proportion of the electorate which share these characteristics begins to shrink.  A party’s members constitute an important part of its sales force and its public face. They need to be numerous enough, young enough, diverse enough, open-minded enough, and tech-savvy enough, to ensure that it can come up with candidates and a ground campaign capable of appealing to 21st century Great Britain.

None of the countries’ parties should be complacent on this score – and all have their quirks: even after the 2017 election, the average Labour member, for instance, is almost certainly more of a well-educated, well-heeled liberal lefty than the average Labour voter.

Yet, as things currently stand, the Tories probably have more to worry about than their main rivals. Whether they can do much to alter the situation and attract a different kind of member in the near future remains to be seen.


Originally published at http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2018/01/05/tories-are-older-whiter-and-more-authoritarian

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‘Hard Brexit looks inevitable unless there is a large shift in public opinion to stay’, Times Red Box, 5 December 2017

Anyone hoping that the UK can avoid a hard Brexit, let alone avoid Brexit altogether, is probably deluding themselves.

The only people with a chance of changing things are MPs representing the two biggest parties in the House of Commons – something that gives rise to all sorts of Kremlinology.

Will the hardcore Brexiteers wear the divorce bill and the possible continued role of the European Court of Justice in any transition period?

Just how mutinous are the mutineers? Can it be true that Jeremy Corbyn and his cronies are finally coming round to the idea that the EU isn’t a capitalist conspiracy? Etc etc.

It’s complicated. In fact, it’s way too complicated. The reality is much simpler.

The only thing that could possibly convince enough Labour and Tory MPs to think again is a major shift in public opinion rooted, firstly, in the belief that the government is incapable of cobbling together a deal with the EU and, secondly, and even more importantly, a serious economic shock.

Sadly, if you’re a Remainer or even simply a soft-Brexiteer, such a shift is unlikely to occur anything like soon enough to make any difference.

Think of the EU as a road and the UK as a car. We’ve left the motorway (at junction 50, obviously) and are heading up the slip-road towards a roundabout with four exits.

The first exit leads to us leaving not just the EU but the customs union and single market, too. The second sees us leave the EU but not the customs union and single market. If, instead, we head straight on and take the third exit we’re onto the slip road that leads back on to the motorway. The fourth exit leads to no deal.

Right now, the Conservatives are in the driving seat and intending on taking the first exit – hard Brexit – even if a few of them in the passenger seat rather fancy the fourth, which they (and pretty much only they) are convinced leads to a bright future for Britain as a buccaneering global free trader and all-round neo-liberal nirvana.

Labour, in the back seat, would (even it doesn’t dare admit it openly yet) really rather take the second exit – Norway/soft Brexit/whatever you want to call it – although many people in the party (especially at the grassroots where they don’t have to worry about offending Leave-voting constituents) would much prefer simply to take the third and return to Europe before it’s too late.

We’ve all been there. That busy roundabout at the top of the slip road’s coming up fast, maybe even a little too fast. We think we know which way we’re headed but we’re not completely sure.

We’re bickering about the best option. And we know we don’t have very much time to change our mind.

However, unless something obvious happens to change it – maybe we get a sign to say that a certain exit is closed for some reason – we’ll end up taking the one we’d supposedly decided on earlier.

For MPs on both sides of the Commons that sign – as perhaps it should be in a democracy – would be a clear indication that the public was coming to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. And “clear” is an important qualifier.

Polls that occasionally show Remain may now be edging Leave won’t cut it. To make an impact the gap would have to open up to something like 60:40, and persistently so.

That will only occur if two things happen.

The first – the conviction that the government is making such a pig’s ear of negotiations that it may not be able to secure a reasonable deal – already seems to be happening.

But the second is more important: a marked and perceptible economic downturn which leads to a loss of confidence so sharp and so sudden (think Black Wednesday or Northern Rock) that it would trump what, until now anyway, has proved to be an overwhelming wish among the general public to reduce immigration – a wish that, if recently realised ONS figures are anything to go by, seems very rapidly to be coming true.

By my reckoning, we’re going to be hitting the Brexit roundabout in the late summer/early autumn of 2018 at the very latest.

However, even if the long-term economic signs don’t look good right now, they’re unlikely to be flashing bright red by then.

As a result, whatever the majority of MPs want or believe in their heart of hearts would be best for the country, Brexit – and a hard Brexit – now looks inevitable.

Unless, that is, an election in the new year – perhaps precipitated by the 21st century equivalent of the Irish Question – suddenly serves to bundle the Tories out of the driving seat and lets Labour grab the wheel.

Even then, precisely which turn the newly-dapper Mr Corbyn would take is anyone’s guess – at least to those of us not lucky enough to have crystal balls as big as Morgan Stanley’s.


Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hard-brexit-looks-inevitable-unless-there-is-a-large-shift-in-public-opinion-to-stay-8km77nk2h

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‘Should Philip Hammond Remain Chancellor of the Exchequer: No’, CityAM, 23 November 2017

“And with one bound he was free!”

Or perhaps not. Even if this year’s Budget doesn’t end up unravelling as swiftly as some of its recent predecessors – and even if actually ends up, unlike them, doing something measurably positive in the long term – it’s probably not going to save the chancellor’s bacon.

And nor should it. Philip Hammond is a realist rather than a fantasist, a pragmatist rather than a zealot, a Remainer rather than a Leaver – in other words, everything that many of his cabinet colleagues are not. As such, he has no place in a government obsessed with quitting the EU whatever the economic cost.

Yes, by staying in post, the chancellor can claim to be limiting the damage that might be done by a true-believer. But, in so doing, he’s allowing Johnson, Gove et al. to carry on having their cake and eating it.

It’s about time one of them actually assumed responsibility for Britain’s brittle Brexit economy. I for one can’t wait to see what happens.

Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/276289/debate-should-philip-hammond-remain-chancellor-exchequer

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‘On Brexit, Labour is about to take a big gulp from a poisoned chalice’, New Statesman, 27 November 2017

What we always seem to talk about when we talk about Brexit is the Tories. Given that they’re in government, and given the mess they seem to be making of the whole thing, that’s wholly understandable.  But it’s also dangerous, not least because it’s letting Labour off the hook, blinding the party to the fact that it may be about to take a very big drink from a very big poisoned chalice.

Jeremy Corbyn and co should be breathing a big sigh of relief that, as the EU Withdrawal Bill grinds its way through parliament, media coverage is more likely than ever to focus on a handful of Conservative ‘mutineers’ rather than on Her Majesty’s Opposition. This, plus the fact that all eyes will soon be on the next European Council meeting in Brussels, means voters won’t be anything like as aware as they should be that Labour remains as badly split as ever – and not just on how and when this country should leave the European Union, but whether it should leave at all.

Yet any relief among the Labour leadership that it’s May rather than Corbyn who’s currently feeling the heat most could turn out to be very short-lived indeed, especially if the party is unlucky enough to win the next general election – whether that election takes place before or after Brexit in March 2019.

Taking over in the wake of a contest triggered by the sudden collapse of Theresa May’s minority government is surely Labour’s nightmare scenario.

For one thing, Prime Minister Corbyn would probably only have made it into No 10 with the parliamentary support of the SNP, a party that has made no secret of the fact that it regards Brexit as a calamity and will do anything within its power to halt it.

For another, there are an awful lot of Labour MPs who feel exactly the same way.  Sure, many of them, especially those representing Leave constituencies, remain nervous about defying the ‘will of the people’.  But even if that means they’re prepared to see the UK leave the EU, they would still prefer a much softer Brexit – up to and including staying in the single market and the customs union – than is currently on offer from Mrs May.

Given all this, would a Labour (or Labour-led) government really refuse to stop the clock, pause the process and think again?  I don’t think so.

Let’s imagine, though, that it never gets the chance: that Corbyn instead takes office after rather than before we leave the EU.  And let’s imagine, too, that the deal negotiated by his Tory predecessor turns out to be a complete turkey.

Having presumably felt obliged to support said deal in a parliamentary vote, lest it be accused of ignoring the referendum result, Labour would hardly be able to disclaim any responsibility for the resulting administrative chaos/economic meltdown/diplomatic humiliation (delete as appropriate).  Moreover, the chances of it ushering in a popular and truly transformative programme with all that going on would be slim to non-existent.

How long a Labour government would last in those circumstances, and how long it would then spend in opposition once disappointed and even angry voters had removed it from power is anyone’s guess.

So, too, is whether a party already riven by divisions between its centrist and socialist wings could even survive such an outcome, at least in its present form.

Every opposition should be desperate to defeat the existing government and take its place at the drop of a hat, right?  Wrong.  ‘Careful what you wish for; you might just get it’ may be something of a cliché.  But for Labour, it’s one it might want to think about – and hard.

Originally published at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2017/11/brexit-labour-about-take-big-gulp-poisoned-chalice

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‘My secret plan to turn students against Brexit’, Politico, 26 October 2017.

My name is Tim Bale and I’m an academic. I’ve been abusing Brexit for nearly a year and a half now, and I just can’t seem to stop. Not a day goes by without me thinking about it, even if I’m not actually doing it. It’s affecting my work life, my home life, and pretty much all my relationships.

The only thing it’s not affecting, it turns out, is my students. Try as I might to bend the minds of my supposedly vulnerable young charges to my Europhile will, the little blighters simply will insist on thinking for themselves. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know why I bother; I really don’t.

Just last week, I took a straw poll of my two second-year British Politics groups at Queen Mary University of London, the majority of whom belong to the 18-24 age group that was most likely to have voted Remain back in June 2016. I offered them a choice: Stay in the EU on current terms or crash out in 2019 with no deal.

Heaven or hell, right? So why, then, did a shocking 30-odd percent of them choose the latter — an option which, in my clearly considered view, any fool (and even, I’ve heard tell, some Cabinet ministers) knows would be a complete and utter catastrophe?

There are surely only two explanations. Either I am a total failure as a propagandist and a pedagogue (possible, but can I really be that bad?) Or else a pesky professional preoccupation with balance and objectivity continues to thwart my best and most malign intentions.

There’s also, I suppose, the fact that I am teaching highly intelligent, politically engaged adults (did I mention, by the way, that they were adults?), all of them possessing fully functioning bullshit-detectors and all of them continually reading, watching, listening to and talking about all sorts of stuff that stands in shocking contradistinction to my own toxic (yet I like to think still tempting) brew of paternalistic centrism, naïve internationalism and desperately unpatriotic defeatism.

Of course, maybe I’m trying to throw even the most perspicacious pro-Brexit columnists off the scent by focusing on the time I spend prancing around the lecture theater and sitting in the seminar room banging on about British politics. Maybe I’m at my most nefarious and insidious in my textbook, European Politics: a Comparative Introduction.

Or maybe not. True, the fourth edition was published this year, over six months after the U.K. voted to leave the EU. But the wheels of academia grind awful slow — so slow that I barely had time to insert more than a few lines (five index entries, I just checked) about Brexit and its impact at complex copy-edit and proof stages.

Agreed, the journal articles that probably make up the bulk of the reading we set for students are much briefer and can theoretically respond more rapidly to contemporary events. But these go through an even more painstaking peer-review process, which means that anything substantive (as opposed to speculative) on Brexit — apart perhaps from work that explores the intricacies of the referendum result — may well only appear in these texts after — rather than before — we leave the European Union.

These frustrating but inevitable leads and lags apply just as much to stuff published by scholars who spend their whole life studying not U.K. or comparative European politics but the EU itself. It seems that, far from being in the vanguard of our wicked collective endeavor to brainwash Britain’s students against Brexit, academic colleagues who specialize in the EU are unlikely to be of much help in that respect.

For one thing, like the EU member countries and Brussels bureaucrats they write about, Brexit (how can I put this so as not to offend Euroskeptics?) may not be the most important thing on their agenda right now.

For another, they tend — at least in my experience — to be pretty critical of the EU: after all, they of all people know how it operates. If students come out of these courses more committed to the ideal of European integration than when they went in — and frankly I’ve no idea if this is the case or not (has anyone ever tried to find out? Maybe they should) — then it’s because they’ve decided that, on balance, the upsides they’ve learned about outweigh the (often considerable) downsides.

Any idea, incidentally, that the U.K. will need fewer staff and students specifically interested in the EU is — if you’ll forgive me slipping into abstruse academic jargon for a moment — utterly bonkers. In fact, we’ll probably need even more of them.

Whatever you think of the whole enterprise, the EU is a trading and political powerhouse that, once we’re denied the more or less easy familiarity that comes with membership, we are going to have to work even harder to understand.

Ultimately, and rather ironically, though, I’m seeking to counter a dubious charge that it’s through our teaching and research that we, as academics, are hardening our students’ hearts and minds against Brexit.

If it’s substantiation for that charge that Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris was hoping to get when he sent out a letter asking universities to share a list of professors teaching Brexit-related material, then I say: Good, at least we’ll have some evidence.

Because at the moment, the best Brexiteers can come up with is a list of clearly earnest, though hardly subtle, and arguably self-interested interventions by scholars who have either gone over to the dark side (university management — run for the hills!) or else are indulging in perfectly legit extracurricular political activity.

None of these, I’m sad to inform the world, are likely even to be noticed by the average (or even above- or below-average) student, let alone persuade them to set fire to the Union Flag while draping themselves instead in the glorious blue and gold stars of Brussels.

Originally published at https://www.politico.eu/article/secret-brexit-plan-to-turn-students-against-leaving-eu/

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