‘The Surreal Contest to Succeed Theresa May’, Foreign Affairs, 17 June 2019

To read this one, click here.

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‘Boris Johnson supporters want no-deal Brexit and less talk of climate change – new survey of party members reveals’, The Conversation (with Paul Webb), 11 June 2019.

By the end of July the UK will have a new prime minister. They will be chosen not by the electorate but by a group of around 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. This selectorate gets to choose between the two candidates who finish first and second in a series of votes held among Conservative MPs.

There has, perhaps not surprisingly, been a degree of disquiet expressed about this situation. Members of political parties are, generally speaking, more zealous than members of the public. Some argue that it might be better to leave the choice of the country’s PM up to MPs. They, at least, have a direct mandate from voters. And, since governments in parliamentary systems must retain the confidence of the legislature in order to stay in office, allowing MPs to choose would at least guarantee a chain of democratic accountability from executive to electorate. That is bypassed completely when party members alone make the decision.

Such concerns are surely all the more pressing because, as our research has already shown, grassroots Conservatives can hardly be said to be representative of the country as a whole, either demographically or ideologically. There are far more men among them than there are women; most of them live in the southern half of the country; they are generally pretty well-off; they are relatively old (although not quite as ancient as often suggested); they are very, very white; and they are also significantly more right wing than the average voter – whether we’re talking about their economic or social attitudes.

Our new analysis, however, using data from a recent survey of Conservative Party members that was kindly provided to us by Chris Curtis of YouGov, reveals something that is possibly even more worrying for critics of the process. The party members who support the clear front runner, Boris Johnson, are even more ideologically unrepresentative of British voters than are the bulk of their counterparts.

Indeed, compared to the kind of members drawn to the two contenders who, currently seem to stand the best chance of grabbing the crucial runner up spot – the environment secretary, Michael Gove, and the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt – Johnson’s supporters look anything but moderate.

While only around a quarter of the wider British public support leaving the EU without a Brexit deal, an amazing 85% of Johnson’s supporters within the party are keen on a no-deal departure.

Can’t wait for that no-deal feeling. YouGov

Some two thirds (66%) of the nearly 900 Conservative rank-and-file members who responded to the survey said the UK should leave without a deal, so Johnson supporters are extreme even by that standard. “Only” 37% of Hunt supporters would be happy with a no-deal Brexit.

Even Gove supporters are less enthusiastic about no-deal than Johnson supporters. Their man was a leading figure in the Leave campaign but only 52% of them want to leave without a deal.

Right-wing base

It’s clear that, when it comes to the 39% of the Conservative grassroots who are in Johnson’s camp, what the party’s critics would no doubt label their extremism isn’t just confined to Brexit.

Asked to locate themselves ideologically, some 42% of members overall said they were on the right – not just of British politics, but of the Conservative Party itself, making Gove’s supporters (39% of whom said the same) about average. Just 15% of Hunt’s grassroots supporters (who make up just 8% of the membership overall) located themselves in that space.

Party members assess where they sit on the left/right spectrum. YouGov

Johnson’s supporters had no such problem: well over half of them (56%) said they belonged on the right wing of their party, with about the same proportion (58%) of them styling themselves as “fairly or very right wing”.

The impression that Johnson’s supporters are very much a sub-set of a sub-set is only reinforced when we dig into the specifics.

For instance, Tory members in general are more inclined than the general public to want to cut tax and spending, so it comes as no surprise that 34% of them supported that option – one that only around a fifth of voters right now would go for. But those members backing Johnson, 40% of whom supported cuts, were twice as enthusiastic about them as those backing Gove (20.5%) and Hunt (22%). This may well solve the mystery of why Johnson’s only big domestic policy so far has been his promise to cut taxes – the front runner is mobilising his base.

Johnson’s base is also relatively socially-conservative. A majority (although, at 59%, hardly an overwhelming majority) of Tory members think that David Cameron’s government was right to allow same sex marriage. Those supporting Gove – who has always been seen as socially-liberal and will be seen as even more so after recent revelations about his cocaine use – are slightly more likely (at 63%) than most members to agree. Supporters of Johnson and Hunt are slightly less likely (at 54% and 55%) to do so.

However, it’s probably climate change where we see the most striking attitudinal differences between those who support Johnson and those who support the others. Rather worryingly for those who regard the issue as a priority, one in five Tory rank-and-file members would like to see less emphasis on climate change. But that rises to one in four among Johnson supporters. Just under one in ten Gove supporters feels the same way, and just over one in ten Hunt supporters.

A worrying finding about climate change. YouGovAuthor provided

Why the difference?

Why that might be – and why Johnson’s supporters seem to be so generally right wing as well as so keen on a no-deal Brexit – can perhaps be explained, not by demographics (supporters of all three candidates actually look pretty similar in that respect), but by looking at when the members who responded to the survey said they’d joined the party.

Nearly half (44.5%) of all the members surveyed said they’d become party members sometime after the 2016 referendum. Hunt’s backers, 41% of whom had done the same, are therefore about average. In contrast, only a third (34%) of Gove’s grassroots backers joined the party after the referendum. That suggests he draws a slightly bigger proportion of his support from those who have stuck by the party through thick and thin. Over half of those rank-and-file Tory members who are backing Johnson, however, joined the party after the EU referendum three years ago.

Signs of a UKIP influx? YouGov

We can only guess as to how many of Johnson’s supporters were former UKIP sympathisers switching to the Tories; but it certainly seems possible. And, who knows, given that one doesn’t have to renounce one’s membership of the Conservative Party to become a registered supporter of the Brexit Party, perhaps some of them hold a candle for Nigel Farage as well as Johnson.

Whether the country will be as pleased as they will be if Johnson does end up making it all the way to Number 10, however, remains to be seen.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/boris-johnson-supporters-want-no-deal-brexit-and-less-talk-of-climate-change-new-survey-of-party-members-reveals-118633

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‘How Farage took control’, Unherd, 7 June 2019.

Politics is like poker. You don’t always need that strong a hand in order to win. You just have to convince your opponents that you do.

The influence of Europe’s – and in particular Britain’s – populist radical Right parties is a case in point.

Although we’ve been hearing about their rising support for years now, few of them have actually won sufficient seats in parliament to force their way into national office. And, as we’ve seen in Peterborough, some of them can’t even win high profile by-elections.

Yet – often with the help (if not necessarily the support) of a media that understandably craves conflict and novelty – they’ve managed to shift the centre of gravity strongly in their direction, particularly when it comes to questions of migration and multiculturalism.

For decades, many centre-Right parties either didn’t have to think very much about those questions (because the numbers coming to their country were so small) or, like the Conservative Party here, they had established a reputation in the minds of voters for being the tougher of the two main governing alternatives on such issues.

Once numbers began to increase, however, those centre-Right parties, already losing support as voters lost faith in their ability to produce the economic goods, were in a bind.

On the one hand, as market-friendly parties supported by business, they could see the case for maintaining a reasonably relaxed attitude: no point, after all, in cutting off a useful source of often cheap, hard-working and flexible labour. On the other, as self-appointed guardians both of their country’s traditional values and its sovereignty, they understood and sympathised with the cultural anxieties felt by many of their ‘natural voters’ – anxieties which more extreme alternatives on their right flanks were more than happy to exploit.

Social democratic parties on the Left, meanwhile, were losing support, particularly among the shrinking ranks of the traditional working class. And they were desperately casting around for reasons why. Rising support for the populist radical Right provided an easy, off-the-shelf explanation that avoided their having to ask whether the truth lay elsewhere – such as with their third-way embrace of less redistributive, less interventionist economic and social policies, and in the seemingly remorseless displacement of authentic working class voices by well-heeled, well-educated, and more professional politicians.

The evidence suggests that the centre-Left has always been significantly less likely to lose voters directly to the populist radical Right than its centre-right opponents. Take Denmark, which is much in the news at the moment. Yes, the Social Democrats, who’d considerably tightened up their already pretty restrictive immigration and integration policies, did well in this week’s general election. And yes, the populist radical Right Danish People’s Party did badly. But the one doesn’t necessarily explain the other – not when flow-of-the-vote calculations suggest that less than 10% of the former’s vote was made up of people who’d previously voted for the latter.

Yet, predisposed as they are to add two and two to make five, Labour and social democratic politicians all over Europe have been no less obsessed than conservative, Christian democratic and even liberal parties with trying to work out how to respond to a threat that can easily appear bigger than it is. What else explains Ed Miliband’s famous immigration mug, or Jeremy Corbyn’s desire to limit free movement not just of goods, services and capital but of people, too?

The mainstream’s first response is often to try to change the subject by talking about almost anything else other than immigration and integration. That’s not altogether impossible: after all, people still care about the economy and public services. But it’s very difficult to do when voters clearly are concerned about such things and, especially when there are plenty of politicians and journalists who know that ‘floods’ of migrants, their apparent ‘failure’ to ‘fit in’, and the supposed ‘strain’ they place on the welfare state make for such arresting headlines.

The mainstream’s response at that point is to try to fight fire with facts – which, as anyone who has tried it will attest, is normally about as effective as fighting with one hand tied behind your back, especially when not everyone in the mainstream (particularly on the centre-right, it has to be said) is averse to peddling some now-familiar myths themselves.

As a result, the most obvious recourse for both centre-Left and centre-Right parties is to claim ‘We’re listening’ and to start adopting – albeit in dilute form and couched in less inflammatory rhetoric – some of the diagnoses and the policy prescriptions of their more radical opponents. The hope, of course, is that voters, realising that their concerns (many of which revolve around the sheer rapidity of cultural change that they never explicitly consented to) are now apparently being taken seriously, will end their flirtation with the extreme and gratefully return to the mainstream.

Except it doesn’t always work like that. By ‘banging on’ about the urgent need to control migration and insisting that migrants mustn’t live separate lives, as well as about (to pick two not-so-random examples) net migration targets and the big bad EU, mainstream parties only serve to up the salience of such issues. And so, rather than undermining the populist radical Right, they actually do it a favour – not least because it can always trump any restrictive (or Eurosceptic) policy that a mainstream party can dream up with something much bigger and better.

Nigel Farage will no doubt be peeved by the Brexit Party’s failure to pull off a win in Peterborough. But it won’t wipe the smile off his face permanently. Farage knows from his days as UKIP leader that all he has to do to get what he wants (which, whatever he might say about taking over at Westminster, remains, in the end, a no-deal Brexit) is to score highly enough in polls and in European and by-elections to make sitting MPs believe that his candidates are capable of stealing enough of ‘their’ voters to gift their seats to their main opponent.

Right now, then, Farage has got both Labour and the Conservatives exactly where he wants them: living in fear and promising the undeliverable.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2019/06/how-farage-took-control/

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‘Britain has never been more European’, Politico, 28 May 2019.

Britain, welcome to Europe.

Nigel Farage’s upstart Brexit Party — which ran away with 32 percent of the vote and is set to gain 28 seats in the European Parliament — has blown the United Kingdom’s political system to pieces. And paradoxically, it’s made it more “European” in the process.

With the Conservatives and Labour Party bleeding support, and big gains for Farage, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, the two-party system looks like it might be on its last legs — replaced by the multiparty pluralism that drives politics in much of Europe.

As hard as it may be to concede for those determined to buy into the myth of British exceptionalism, the U.K. is following in its neighbors’ footsteps.

Austria, Estonia and Germany — to name just three — have all reckoned with the rise of an extremist party in national politics. And across the EU, traditional catch-all parties of the center right and center left have also seen massive drops in support. New cleavages that cut across class divides have boosted the popularity of political startups on their flanks — be they populist far-rightists, radical centrists (à la Macron), radical leftists (como Podemos), Green parties, or even separatists.

Welcome to fragmentation, polarization, volatility and the erosion of traditional party loyalties.

This is not the first time, of course, that a populist, radical-right, British insurgency led by Farage has topped a European poll and sent a big bunch of MEPs to make as much mischief (and as much money) as possible in Brussels and Strasbourg: In 2014, the U.K. Independence Party (may it rest in peace) won 27 percent of the vote.

Despite Farage’s win this weekend, he is arguably no closer to holding office back home. As the former UKIP leader knows from experience, it’s by no means easy to turn what is effectively a protest vehicle (albeit a much flashier and better engineered one this time) into an all-singing, all-dancing outfit that people — even the people who play a starring role in every populist’s wet dreams — reckon is ready for government.

The more immediate implications of this European election for the U.K. is the collapse of its two big mainstream parties. If UKIP’s win five years ago sent tremors through British politics, this year’s Brexit Party upset is more like a full-scale earthquake.

Five years ago, the big two — let’s carry on calling them that for the sake of argument — performed woefully, but were still relatively close on UKIP’s heels (with 24 percent for Labour and 23 percent for the Tories). Together, they could claim to have the support of nearly half the country. That argument can’t be made this time around: Support for the two parties amounts to barely more than a quarter of the vote.

Labour’s share, at 14 percent, is its worst at a nationwide election in 100 years, and has already prompted calls for the party to pivot toward calling for a second referendum in order to stop the resurgent Liberal Democrats (on 20 percent), Greens (12 percent), and Scottish National Party (38 percent in Scotland) in their tracks.

But it’s the Conservatives’ share, at only 9 percent, that’s truly catastrophic. Perhaps most disastrously for the country, the result all but guarantees that they will now order the full English Brexit — namely a promise to leave the EU with or without a deal on October 31, cooked for our delectation by a charismatic leader like former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

Sure, the Tories have almost certainly lost some votes in Remain regions to the Lib Dems. But neither the Tory MPs nor the grassroots Tory members who will vote to replace Prime Minister Theresa May as party leader are going to be listening to that particular still small voice.

Tory thinking (if you can call it that) goes something like this: By calling for Brexit to happen by Halloween, deal or no deal, the party can claw back most of the support it’s clearly lost to Farage by the next general election. After all, the argument goes, a year after UKIP’s 2014 triumph, David Cameron won an overall majority for the Conservatives.

This time, however, the Tories have even more reason to be worried. Cameron’s victory was the result of Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which favors large parties over small ones. But should the Brexit Party manage to maintain its lead over the Conservatives, then there’s no telling to which party that advantage will accrue.

We’ve been slowly moving away from two-party politics in the U.K. for decades now. The European election results might be the moment when we finally kiss it goodbye.

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‘May’s Fatal Flaw’, UnHerd, 24 May, 2019.

After the initial surge of sympathy provoked in my sentimental old soul by Theresa May’s tears at the end of her speech in Downing Street, all I could think of were Oscar Wilde’s words on Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone,” Wilde wrote, “to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

It was a speech of epic self-delusion and self-justification, followed by a veritable flood of hypocrisy from many of those who had made her life – indeed, all our lives – a misery for the last two years. Ultimately, though, they aren’t to blame for the mess the country and the Conservative Party is in today. She is. Where, then, did it all go so terribly wrong?

It was as soon as she stepped through the door of Number Ten Downing Street. Instead of turning round and telling people, particularly in her own party, the truth – namely that the referendum was a close run thing, that people had voted Leave for a myriad of different reasons, that the Irish border was bound to prove problematic, and that, more generally, the EU-27 weren’t going to allow the UK to have its cake and eat it – she decided to present herself as Brexitier-than-thou.

Quite why we can only guess. There are a number of possibilities, even leaving aside the temptation to cast her erstwhile adviser, Nick Timothy as the serpent.

Perhaps it was pure partisan opportunism – the thought of the Tories pulling off Brexit and pulling in many of the four million voters who had supported UKIP in 2015. Perhaps it was the need to prove her personal bona fides after playing the role of reluctant Remainer in the referendum campaign. Perhaps it was her tendency, after five years as Home Secretary, to see everything through the prism of immigration: Vote Leave stressed it; therefore the referendum was won on it; therefore free movement must end; therefore hard Brexit.

From that initial decision everything else flowed.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2019/05/what-was-mays-fatal-flaw/

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‘Why we all need a share in capitalism’, UnHerd, 13 May 2019.

Was Margaret Thatcher right? Not about everything, obviously. Only the true-Blue keepers of the flame believe that, surely?

But was she right about ‘popular capitalism‘, the intuitively plausible idea formed by Tories in heady days of the Eighties that held that spreading share-ownership via the privatisation of publicly owned firms and industries would give ordinary Brits ‘a stake in the market’ and, in so doing, would push them to vote Conservative instead of Labour?

The answer, according to some intriguing research I heard about this week during a trip to the States, suggests she might have been.

As far as I’m aware, Lady Thatcher had no personal connection with Princeton, one of the USA’s Ivy League universities, although one of the best recent books on her was written by Sir David Cannadine, a British historian and Princeton faculty member.

But it was here that I attended a colloquium exactly 40 years to the day after Thatcher first entered Downing Street as Prime Minister, and where I heard Yotam Margalit, from Tel Aviv University, present some research he’d conducted with Moses Shayo from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Margalit wasn’t talking about Thatcher, but the findings of his research would, I’m sure, have pleased the Iron Lady no end. As a trained chemist, Thatcher would especially have liked the fact that they resulted not from desk research, but from an experiment.

The experiment was a complex one, with different ‘treatments’ applied to subgroups of the sample of 1,500 English participants. In essence, however, it involved giving the participants, most of whom had never invested in the stock market, £50 to spend over the course of two months on buying and selling stocks on a web-based platform.

In the weeks before and afterwards they, along with a control group, were also asked a range of apparently unrelated questions designed to tap into their underlying social and political attitudes, as well as some more specific, policy-related questions on tax, spending, and regulation.

The results? The people who actually got to trade stocks, they found, ‘shifted rightward’ in their social-economic values. This influenced their attitudes on economic fairness, inequality and redistribution, the role of luck in economic success. They also found that ‘exposure to the market increased subjects’ confidence in the ability of regular people to successfully invest in the market, as well as their own inclination to invest’.

Although there was no shift in participants’ views on policy, such as whether government should provide either more or less generous benefits to the jobless, they did become less sympathetic to the idea of taxing investment gains and regulating the market. They also became much keener on the idea that people be allowed to invest some of their national insurance contributions in the stock market, even if that that meant more meagre retirement funds for those whose gambles didn’t pay off.

Moreover, and in some ways most fascinatingly of all, this ‘rightward shift in social-economic values’ occurred among both left and right-wing voters but was ‘more pronounced among those on the left’. They also found ‘little evidence that the change in attitudes was determined by how well participants’ investments performed’. Amazingly, Margalit and Shayo discovered that the effects on attitudes that came about by playing the stock market were still there when they followed up participants a year later.

These results are striking but they also accord with research based on the science of elections gathered during the late 1980s, which suggests a relationship between share ownership and increased Conservative voting and a similar tendency among the millions who bought shares in the utilities privatised by Thatcher.

Even if those correlations weren’t spurious, popular capitalism (and what Left-wingers consider its evil twin, ‘the property owning democracy’ kickstarted through council house sales), could do the trick forever.

Thatcher herself was unceremoniously dumped by her parliamentary party when the economy tanked soon after her third successive victory in 1987, at which point it had become clear she and many of her flagship policies had become an electoral liability. And although her party managed to pull off a surprise win in 1992, it got its comeuppance in 1997 and, frankly, has struggled ever since.

Nevertheless, leaving time and chance aside, and incorporating a little bit of economic history, this latest research suggests that it wasn’t so much that providing people with the opportunity to own shares failed to shift them to the Right, but that it involved far too few people to pay off long-term, at least electorally.

It’s estimated that around three million individuals owned shares in 1979, and by 1987 the figure had risen to over eight million. But many of the smaller investors were in it for immediate short-term gain, while relatively few were so bitten by the bug that buying shares in privatised companies led them to expand their portfolios to include other asset classes.

In any case, eight million people was only ever a small proportion of the total population. Ownership of UK listed shares by individuals fell precipitately in the 60s, 70s, and, yes, the 80s too, and now stands at around 12%, which incidentally is around the European average. Establishing the proportion of the UK’s population that owns shares individually as opposed to through, say, pension funds, is far harder. Apparently, nearly nine million people in the UK hold stocks and shares ISAs, which constitutes less than one in five of us – a figure which accords neatly with the 19% estimate quoted in a 2015 ResPublica report.

Even if Margalit and Shayo are right, then, capitalism would need to be a lot more popular – in the literal sense of more people owning more shares – to make as big a difference to the nation’s politics and attitudes as Thatcher firmly believed it would.

Sceptics will argue that their findings were produced ‘in the lab’, and that things would be very different in the real world. They may say that in reality, people playing with their own hard-earned cash would lead to devastating losses in their standard of living as well as their faith in financial markets – the very thing the researchers think may (along with sheer familiarity) be driving the attitude shifts they observe.

But that prompts a further question. Would anything that contributed to distrust of financial markets have opposite effects to those that the research discussed here discovered?

Could another crash, or simply a gnawing feeling that the markets are rigged in favour of big banks and crony capitalists, generate support for greater regulation, a more comprehensive safety net, and the idea that failure or success is as much a product of society as it is of individual effort and responsibility? Politicians of every stripe would do well to bear that in mind.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2019/05/how-capitalism-can-change-politics/

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‘Is Corbyn doing the country a favour?’, UnHerd, 3 May 2019.

Jeremy Corbyn is not for turning. Swinging Labour behind another referendum seems to make sense on so many levels. Yet, for the moment anyway, he simply won’t do it – to the obvious frustration not just of #PeoplesVote fans but of many Labour MPs and trade union leaders, most of the party’s ordinary members, and, as he’s made very clear on several occasions now, Labour’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson. And Labour’s rather ‘meh’ showing at last night’s local elections certainly isn’t going to persuade its leader to change his mind.

But could Corbyn, by making what might be a big mistake in the short to medium term, end up doing the country a huge favour in the long term? By sitting on the fence he just might prevent the already painful polarisation between Leave and Remain voters from creating a partisan divide between Labour and the Conservatives to rival the one between Democrats and Republicans that’s disfiguring politics across the pond.

Declaring Labour’s support for a second, ‘confirmatory’ referendum would undoubtedly be a logical move for Corbyn. It would open up the possibility not just of topping the poll at the European elections (an accolade which on current form will otherwise go to the Brexit Party, just as it went to UKIP in 2014), but of strangling Change UK in its cradle or, if that’s too murderous a metaphor for you, blowing up its planes while they’re still on the ground. It would also stop what, after the locals, is bound to be trumpeted (with some justification, it has to be said) as #libdemfightback.

Before anyone gets on my case, yes I know – or at least think I know – why Corbyn won’t make that move.

For a start, there’s the ‘Lexiteer’ perspective he shares with his hard-Left advisors and trade union allies. Just because most economists deride the idea that EU membership presents an obstacle to a faster growing, more ‘socialist’ Britain, it doesn’t mean Corbyn and co. are going to stop believing that it does anytime soon.

And then, of course, there’s the widespread concern among many (but by no means all) Labour MPs in ‘Leave constituencies’ that being seen to do anything that smacks of stopping Brexit will lose them the support of ‘traditional Labour voters’ or ‘the white working class’. Doubtless those MPs will be citing Labour’s disappointing local election results in some Leave voting areas in the north of England as ‘evidence’.

Again, expert opinion would differ. It’s not just a matter of refusing to lump all sorts of very different people together in outdated, subjective, and fetishised categories. Or of being wary of extrapolating too much from the outcome of council contests. It’s also about preferring solid survey research over the faux-concern for their constituents or  ‘democracy’ expressed by a bunch of politicians arguably more interested in hanging on to their precious seats in parliament than the fate of the country as a whole.

Naturally, those politicians will dismiss that research: no-one but no-one, especially a bunch of ivory-tower academic number crunchers and London-based polling companies, will ever persuade an MP that they don’t know ‘their patch’ and ‘their people’ quite as well as they think they do – something which presumably accounts for the stunned incredulity with which so many defeated incumbents greet their demise at general election after general election.

But, to me at least, that research suggests that supporting a second vote wouldn’t actually lose Labour many, if any, seats anyway. And it also suggests that, even if it did, Labour might well win seats elsewhere as a result.

We also need to factor in the opportunity costs that Labour may have to pay for continuing to sit on the fence. True, a fair few of its members and supporters, whatever their t-shirts say, ultimately love Corbyn more than they hate Brexit. But not backing a second referendum – or whatever euphemism you prefer to call it – is, over time, still going to alienate an awful lot of them.

Maybe not so badly that they’ll immediately take to Twitter with their party cards and a sharp pair of scissors. But enough to see them slowly drift away or at least out of the ‘high-intensity’ activities (canvassing, leafletting, etc.) that are still so vital in first-past-the-post contests – something that Labour learned to its advantage, and the Tories to their cost, in 2017.

The eight-month run-up to that election saw Theresa May dismiss any notion that the 2016 Referendum had produced a close result which, along with the difficulties the UK was always going to face negotiating with a more powerful interlocutor, implied the best course to pursue was some sort of Norway-style arrangement. Instead, she went for a hard Brexit designed to appeal to Leave voters – many (though not all) of them socially conservative, less well-heeled and less well-educated – and in particular to the four million voters (13% of the electorate) who two years previously had voted for UKIP.

Sadly for Mrs May (and, as it turned out, fatally for her hopes of honouring her promise to extract the UK from the EU by 29 March 2019), she was only partially successful. Although she increased the Tories’ vote share (from 36.9% to 42.4%), the narrow majority they won under David Cameron in 2015 evaporated, leaving them as a minority government reliant on a dodgy support arrangement with the Brexit-supporting DUP.

True, the Conservatives did win over (and in many cases win back) many former UKIP voters, but only rarely in sufficient numbers in the places where they stood a chance of winning seats from Labour.

Meanwhile, Labour, despite its leader’s ambivalence during the referendum campaign, and despite its pledge to honour the result of the referendum, picked up votes from those sections of the electorate most likely to have voted Remain, namely the younger, the better educated and the more socially liberal. But because many of them were located in more urban areas where Labour would have won anyway, and because Tory support also rose, the party’s big improvement in vote share (from 30.4% to 40%) resulted in a much smaller, 30-seat improvement in seat share.

At that point, the stage was surely set for Britain’s two main parties to make Brexit and, crucially, the values associated with Remain and Leave voting, the main divide between them. And in many ways it still is – but for Jeremy Corbyn.

Few can doubt that the Conservatives’ response to what has happened since – most worryingly the rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party  – will be to become, in nature if not in name, what Nick Timothy (once seen as some sort of Rasputin to May’s Tsarina), has taken to calling the National Party. Losing seats at the locals in some Remain-voting areas in the South might give them pause for thought, but it’s unlikely, particularly when Brexiteers can (and will) point to picking up the odd council in the West Midlands – an area that traditionally helps decide the result of general elections.

Now, if politics were physics it would presumably obey Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there would be an equal and opposite reaction. The Conservatives’ seemingly inexorable drift towards what many of its more moderate MPs see as populism, jingoism, and intolerance would be matched by a Labour Party catering only for those for who shudder to think of such things.

Anyone who wonders what that might do to our politics only has to look across the Atlantic, ideally with a copy of Lilliana Mason’s provocative but persuasive book, Uncivil Agreement, in their hands. The polarisation we are witnessing in the USA is driven not just by the fact that Americans are divided by race, religion, and whether they see themselves as conservative or liberal, but by the fact that these identities, via social sorting, increasingly map on to the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats.

Nobody, surely, wants to see that kind of poisonous politics play out here. All of which raises the intriguing possibility – even for those who want to see Corbyn commit his party to a referendum and to remaining in the EU – that, by resolutely refusing to do either, he might be doing precisely the right thing, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2019/05/is-corbyn-doing-the-country-a-favour/

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