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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s pure and simple (yeah yeah)

I’ll be there for you.

Pure and simple gonna be there,

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

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

It’s pure and simple (yeah yeah)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pure and simple, then? Maybe not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Four reasons why the Lib Dem fightback may fall flat’, Times, 30 May 2017

Tim Farron’s party had high hopes for this election, based on its claim to represent the fabled 48 per cent who voted to remain in the EU last summer and on the impressive increase in membership it has seen since then. But there are at least four things which look likely to stymie a Lib Dem fightback and an improvement on the 7.9 per cent and 2.4 million votes they got last time.

First, many of the 48 per cent voted for parties other than the Lib Dems in 2015 and are going to stick with those parties in spite of their respective stances on Brexit – good (Tories), bad (Greens and the SNP), or “it depends” (Labour).

Second, outside of the leafy suburbs of (southwest) London and a handful of university towns, the seats they lost in 2015 are in parts of (mainly southern) England where Leave won the day in the referendum.

Third, although some of the smell has worn off since 2015, they remain in bad odour with many “progressive” voters after their fateful (and some would say fatally misguided) decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives in May 2010.

Fourth and finally, their leader, Tim Farron, whatever his intrinsic merits, doesn’t rate with (and often doesn’t even impinge on the consciousness of) the great British public.

Don’t be surprised, then, to see the Lib Dems holding a leadership contest in the medium (if not the short) term, although it is difficult to see any candidate on the horizon who would do markedly better than the incumbent.

Sir Vince Cable may have a crack, although only if he’s returned to parliament in June. Who knows, his recent observation that “politics after the election may be more interesting than before it” may have been an oblique reference to this.

Likewise, Norman Lamb, who lost out to Farron last time round. Whether either of them, or indeed anyone else, can realistically hope to accelerate what only time (and possibly a catastrophically bad Brexit) can heal is less than certain.

The Lib Dems, like the Greens, are used to surviving in the wilderness; they still have a relatively strong base in local government.

They do not seem, then, to be facing a threat which could be accurately be labelled “existential” – unless, of course, the Labour Party splits, giving rise to a Macron-style party of the radical centre. But that, as they say, is another story . . .

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/lib-dem-fightback-may-fall-flat-kqcl0rgdj

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‘Ukip seems to be facing a pretty bleak future’, Times, 1 June 2017

Theresa May isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but she has been extraordinarily successful in winning over the support of many of the nearly four million people (12.6 per cent of the electorate) who voted for the populist radical right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) back in 2015.

Brexit, border control, grammar schools, “strong and stable” leadership, support for ordinary working people, dollops of common sense, and the merest dash of criticism of big business. You name it, the prime minister has supplied it, and the response – especially now Nigel Farage seems finally to have left the building – has been everything she could have hoped for and more.

In contrast, Ukip’s latest leader, Paul Nuttall, is seen by his critics (both within and out the party) as a hapless, hopeless character.

And if he cannot improve on the party’s dire local election performance and its current opinion poll ratings, his position must surely be under threat post-election – or it would be if there were anyone serious willing and able (and, indeed, brave enough) to take over.

As a result, Ukip seems to be facing a pretty bleak future – presuming it has a future at all. The party is reported to be haemorrhaging members as fast as it is haemorrhaging voters, and is widely thought to have severe financial problems now its biggest donors have shut their wallets.

That, and the fact that there will be no more EU money coming the party’s way after 2019, may well mean it will very soon no longer be a going concern, electorally or organisationally – or both.

Given, however, that Mrs May will almost certainly be unable (once again) to achieve a noticeable reduction in immigration, at least in the short term, and given that the cultural anxiety created by Britain becoming an ever more multicultural society is unlikely to go away, the country may still have room for an Islamophobic, English-nationalist party.

But unless it is led by someone skilled and charismatic enough to convince people that it is not the BNP Mark II, then that party will – like the BNP Mark I – be condemned to roam the radical right-wing fringes of the party system, where there are few votes and no seats.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tim-bale-h8272pflh

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‘After an enormous victory in local elections, should the Tories fear voter complacency in the General? No’, CityAM, 8 May 2017

If your team is 3-0 up at half-time, then you can be fairly confident that you’re going to pull off an easy win. But even so, you need to guard against complacency. Remember the 2005 Champions League final, when the mighty AC Milan, in exactly that position, allowed Liverpool to come back and, after extra time and penalties, win the trophy?

But if you’re 3-0 up with only a couple of minutes of added time left on the clock, then it’s a different ball game.

All you need to do is shut up shop, keep possession, and wait for the whistle. That’s the position Conservatives are in right now. The locals don’t constitute a sure-fire prediction of a Tory landslide on 8 June, but they do suggest that the huge poll lead they’ve built up over Labour is real. Sure, turnout might be low in a few weeks’ time, but that is unlikely to do Theresa May much harm. And she’s not the type, anyway, to leave anything to chance.

Originally published at: http://www.cityam.com/264176/after-enormous-victory-local-elections-should-tories-fear

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‘Britain’s Labour Party is seeing a flood of new members. That’s why it’s in such trouble.’, Washington Post, 10 May 2017

Whether you look at the opinion polls or at the beating it’s just taken in a slew of local elections, Britain’s Labour Party is in a lot of trouble. Theresa May, the country’s Conservative prime minister, called for an early general election next month. Her opponent, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, looks set to lead his party to a historic defeat. Labour might be thrashed so badly that, in order to find a parallel, we might have to look beyond the 1980s, when Labour was regularly trounced by Margaret Thatcher, to the 1930s, when it was reduced to an impotent rump.

 Here’s the puzzle. The same Labour Party that is careening toward electoral disaster on June 8 has enjoyed amazing success in bringing in new members. Hundreds of thousands of people have joined the party since 2015, five years after it was voted out of office after 13 years in government. This is all the more extraordinary given a general trend of declining membership among European political parties.

So how can a party that is doing so well in adding to its membership be doing so badly in the polls? The answer is that attracting more members may be a curse rather than a blessing.

Here’s how Labour has grown

Last summer, Labour boasted around 550,000 members. It has lost some since but is around half a million strong. Many people joined to support Corbyn, the veteran leftist who caught everyone by surprise in the 2015 leadership contest and, with the support of even more new members, beat off a leadership challenge in 2016.

This is a big contrast with the Conservatives. Last time they provided us with a figure of their membership — something British parties aren’t obliged to do and prefer not to do unless their membership seems to be growing — they had around 140,000.

Political scientists aren’t sure that having more members helps parties win elections. The “ground game” – party activities on the ground, which often rely on party volunteers — might make a difference in districts where parties are evenly matched. But money may matter as much, if not more than members, especially as parties seem to be relying more and more on carefully targeted direct mail and digital advertising. Moreover, as we have recently shown, parties don’t always need to rely on members, as large numbers of people who aren’t paid-up members may often lend a hand come election time.

There may be another possibility — under some circumstances members, rather than being an asset to their party, may actually be a liability. Could membership growth and electoral decline have something to do with each other? This may help explain Labour’s current dilemma.

Labour party members look very different to average British voters

Labour Party members have probably always been further to the liberal left than the average British voter. Our research suggests that this is even more the case for those who joined the party after the 2015 general election. This matters because Labour, like many left-of-center parties, believes in intraparty democracy. Policy is set through a complex process involving a whole host of stakeholders (including the parliamentary party and affiliated trade unions). But ordinary party members have a much bigger say in deciding who will represent the party as general election candidates vying to become members of parliament (MPs).

This means that over time, Labour’s grass-roots activists can select candidates in their own image, potentially altering the composition of the parliamentary party (the PLP). That’s important, not just because it determines who gets to sell Labour’s policies to the public at election time but because, under the party’s rules, anyone who wants to stand for its leadership has to be nominated by a certain proportion of MPs to become a candidate that people can vote for.

But it’s once the list of candidates for Labour leader is finalized that the party’s ordinary members really do exercise power. Following changes put in place by Labour’s previous leader, Ed Miliband, it operates a full-blown “one-member-one-vote system,” which also, incidentally, gives a vote to “registered supporters” who pay a reduced fee.

How Jeremy Corbyn became Labour’s leader

It was this system which, to the horror of the bulk of Labour MPs, led to Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader back in 2015. When a bunch of them (some of whom later cursed themselves for what they did) agreed to nominate him to “widen the debate” in a nod to the party’s left-wing membership, they failed to foresee the risk they were running. By telling that membership what it wanted to hear, and by attracting new members into the party, Corbyn won the contest. The majority of MPs proceeded to vote no confidence in his leadership.  But, because he was the incumbent and therefore didn’t require their nominations, they could not exclude him from a second contest which took place in 2016 — a contest he won with an even bigger majority from an even bigger membership.

Corbyn’s views and demeanor have made him the least popular politician to have led the Labour Party since opinion polls begun. Even in a parliamentary rather than a presidential system, people look to leaders when they decide whom to vote for, creating big problems for the Labour Party’s electoral appeal.

 Corbyn’s leadership is not the only problem

Labour’s problems are go much deeper than a leader who is adored by many party members but derided by many voters. As a superb new book discusses, they also face a seemingly inexorable decline in working class support.

Even so, Labour is in the kind of trouble it’s in at least partly because of the members it’s got. These members are middle class and well-educated, largely unworried about immigration, in favor of high taxes and big government, and still seemingly supportive of a leader who shares their values.

Corbyn unsurprisingly sees Labour’s large membership as a solution not a problem.  Grass roots left-wingers responded to Labour’s disastrous performance in last week’s local elections by claiming their sheer numbers and sheer enthusiasm would help turn things around and deliver victory for Labour on June 8. Their theory, then, will be tested very soon — and possibly to destruction.

Originally published at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/05/10/britains-labour-party-is-seeing-a-flood-of-new-members-thats-why-its-in-such-trouble/

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