‘Here’s Tory Brexiteers’ real plan for 2019: a leaner, meaner Britain’, Guardian, 13 July 2018.

It’s a truth pretty universally acknowledged that the reason the Conservative government has struggled to come up with an agreed negotiating position in the wake of the country voting for Brexit is that many Tories who campaigned for leave didn’t really think they’d win the referendum. Even those who dared to dream were determined not to muddy their “take back control” messaging by getting dragged into discussing precisely how they’d go about it.

But there was another reason behind their reluctance to talk about what came next – the fact that the UK’s departure from the European Union will necessitate a change to the country’s political economy that risks proving as electorally unpopular as it will be profound. This is the love that dare not speak its name – at least until March 2019, when we are suddenly likely to start hearing a whole lot more about it.

For the party’s hyperglobalists, Brexit doesn’t just mean Brexit. It means a leaner, meaner Britain where the costs – financial and otherwise – of doing business are lowered in order to allow companies, and the country, to compete on the world stage.

This means cutting both tax and public services. State provision, after all, is deemed by its very nature to be a vested interest, inefficient and inferior to what markets can be enabled to provide. It also stymies incentives toward entrepreneurialism and creates welfare dependencies – as well as crowding out private (and charitable) sector activity.

Brexit also means cutting what these true believers like to call “red tape”. Indeed, one of the main reasons for wanting out of the EU, as well as the opportunity to do trade deals of our own, is the desire to escape the externally imposed regulation that supposedly hobbles and handicaps us in the so-called global race. No matter that the UK already has a relatively easy-hire, easy-fire culture – it needs to be even more dynamic.

So, what is this guide to how the UK can rebirth itself – primarily by learning, not so much from European countries (unless, of course, they are busy cutting welfare entitlements and making their labour markets more flexible) but from Asian dynamos such as South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as places such as Brazil and Israel? It is – and maybe the title tells you all you need to know – Britannia Unchained. Its authors? Rising stars of the parliamentary Conservative party.

True, a couple of them have a lower profile than the others, although Kwasi Kwarteng is parliamentary private secretary to the chancellor, and Chris Skidmore has just been put in charge of a new policy commission set up by Theresa May. True, too, that one of them, leave cheerleader and disgraced former international development secretary Priti Patel, has recently crashed to earth. But the other two are definitely making their mark: uber-Thatcherite Liz Truss is now chief secretary to the Treasury, and hard Brexiteer Dominic Raab has just been appointed secretary of state for exiting the European Union.

Their recent rise to power does not represent the success of some carefully planned conspiracy to hijack the Tory party hatched in 2012, when their book was originally published. But it does provide strong clues as to the direction it may take after 2019 – presuming, of course, that the UK does actually manage to formally extract itself from the EU by that date.

We need those clues precisely because those responsible for steering the Conservatives’, and therefore the country’s, course from then on have been so coy with “the people” in whose name the referendum was fought and won.

If this is more than a little ironic, it is also understandable: after all, there is little or no evidence from opinion research that their prospectus for post-Brexit Britain would find many takers. This is true even among the famous 17.4 million who voted leave in 2016 – particularly if, along with shrinking the state, it also means an end (which if free marketeers are consistent it certainly should do) to migration targets.

Does this disjunction between what “the people” currently say they want and what they supposedly need actually bother Tory hyperglobalists, except insofar as it prevents them, at least for the moment, from revealing all?

No – the reason being that they are Leninists, in the same way that Margaret Thatcher, their inspiration and icon, was a Leninist. Just like her, in 1979, they believe they know what we want better than we do ourselves right now. And just like her, they have a crusading vision whose details, inasmuch as they’ve been fully worked out, are best kept under wraps until the time is right and we can be made to realise – they hope gratefully rather than grudgingly – that there truly is no alternative.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/13/tory-brexiteers-plan-2019-britain-conservative


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‘Grammar schools are indefensible. I should know – I went to one’, Guardian, 11 May 2018.

This morning, not for the first (or the last) time, I had to be patiently reminded not to rant and rave at the radio while taking a shower. The trigger? The government’s announcement that it was bunging an extra 50 million quid at grammar schools that wanted to expand. It’s the ultimate zombie policy. Just when you think the 11-plus is, if not finally dead and buried, then at least quarantined, it’s rising from the grave once again.

What explains its survival? After all, the internet reliably informs me that there are plenty of ways to actually kill a zombie. By the same token, a quick search on Google and its pointy-headed sister site, Google Scholar, throws up decades worth of research that comprehensively debunks the claims of 11-plus fans that it improves aggregate outcomes and boosts social mobility. And this research has been replicated in more publicly accessible forums by blogs and thinktanks (even right-leaning thinktanks) and journalists, most obviously the indefatigable Chris Cook of the BBC.

The only explanation is a toxic combination of nostalgia and ideology that the Tory party (and its erstwhile outside toilet, Ukip) seems unable to shake off . This is in spite of the fact that it was a Conservative education minister, Edward Boyle, who effectively gave the green light for the replacement of grammars by comprehensives and one of his successors, Margaret Thatcher, who did little (although not, to be scrupulously accurate, nothing) to turn back the tide.

To realise quite how powerful the right’s faith in selective secondary education is, just think back to the last time it was seriously challenged from within. In May 2007, probably the high-water mark of David Cameron’s modernising phase as Tory leader, David (now Lord) Willetts, then the party’s shadow education secretary, tried telling it the truth in a speech to the CBI. “We must break free,” he said, “from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids … there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage; it does not spread it.”

The reaction? The Conservative party went nuts – especially after Cameron issued “a clear and uncompromising message to those who think they can perpetuate a pointless debate about grammar schools: we will never be taken seriously by parents and convince them we are on their side and share their aspirations if we splash around in the shallow end of the education debate”.

Things became even more heated when Cameron doubled down a couple of days later, declaring it was “completely delusional” to talk about building more grammars and claiming it was “a key test for our party. Does it want to be a serious force for government and change, or does it want to be a rightwing debating society muttering about what might have been?”

This proved too much for Graham Brady (now the well-respected chairman of the 1922 Committee, and one of my favourite Tories, but then an opposition frontbencher), who resigned his post in protest. At this point Cameron (characteristically, some might say) plumped for appeasement rather the proverbial “clause IV moment”. More grammar schools, it transpired, could be built in areas that still used the 11-plus exam if population increases required. Oh, and Willetts was pretty soon relieved of his responsibility for the education brief.

Hence where we are today, wasting yet more desperately needed cash on under 5% of the country’s secondary schools – schools that are pointlessly divisive, and which don’t do the job they are supposed to do even when it comes to social mobility.

The classic comeback, of course, to any such criticism is not to dispute the research, which demonstrates this beyond reasonable doubt. Instead it is to point out that people like me, who went to grammar schools, are pulling the ladder up with them, selfishly determined to deny others the chance to experience the supposedly glorious education were once lucky enough to receive themselves.

Ad hominem bullshit, of course. But, hey, what else is there when you’re defending the indefensible?

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/11/grammar-schools-dont-work-tories-socially-regressive


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‘A Labour party that couldn’t even smash the local elections should be seriously worried’, CityAM, 8 May 2018.

At first glance, Thursday’s local elections seemed to offer something for everyone (except for Ukip, of course).

But Labour should be worried – really, really worried.

First, the upside – at least for self-styled progressives. The referendum has clearly removed Ukip’s main raison d’etre, and a series of soap-opera-style leadership contests has rendered it a laughing stock. Purple is now officially as unfashionable as the Black Death – until, perhaps, it finally dawns on former Farage fans that post-Brexit Britain is going to look pretty much like pre-Brexit Britain, only poorer.

The main beneficiaries of that collapse appear to have been the Tories. Not only did they hold on in London, but they seem to have won over erstwhile Ukip voters in places – most obviously in towns like Dudley in the West Midlands – which could deliver them a bunch of gains at the next election.

The loss of one or two true-blue councils elsewhere – Plymouth, for instance – will sting, but these really aren’t that serious, although they will worry a few sitting Conservative MPs.

That said, the Lib Dems’ impressive performance in Richmond should give the Tories some genuine cause for concern – particularly because (along with results in other parts of South West London and, indeed, the South West more generally) it suggests that Vince Cable’s party is finally out of intensive care and, if not quite fit for discharge, at least sitting up and talking.

It’s all too easy to forget that one of the main reasons why David Cameron was able to win a surprise overall majority in 2015 was because Britain’s traditional third party came a very distant fourth that year.

Any signs that the Lib Dems might be capable of snatching back a handful of seats next time need to be taken very, very seriously by Brandon Lewis and James Cleverley and their team at CCHQ – not least because any return to form by the “yellow peril” opens up the possibility of Vince and his colleagues becoming king-makers once again.

At a deeper level, the results are also a reminder to Tory strategists that the party will continue to struggle to put together a convincing parliamentary majority unless it can somehow find a way to appeal to urban, ethnically-diverse, and pro-European Britain – the Britain of the future, not the past.

Still, that’s for the long term. For the moment, a combination of Ukip’s collapse and the public’s evident lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues could well see the Tories emerge once again as at least the biggest party in the next election. Indeed, if they finally start spending some serious money on the NHS and schools, and, of course, start building some houses, even an overall majority can’t be completely ruled out.

For Labour, however, the locals were a washout – and not simply because campaigners allowed the bar to be set too high beforehand, or because the party’s performance three years ago made big gains less likely.

Any opposition facing a government that has been in office as long as this one and that is so clearly struggling to deliver in so many ways should have absolutely smashed it last Thursday. But Labour didn’t. Fact.

Forget about London for a moment, and look at places like Swindon and Nuneaton. Without winning towns like them, there is no way back to power for Labour – even as the largest party in a hung parliament where the Lib Dems hold the balance of power.

Corbyn and co. can over-promise and virtue-signal their way to stunning victories in big cities and university towns. But if Thursday’s results are anything to go by, that won’t be enough in the end to get them into government.

Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/285399/labour-party-couldnt-even-smash-local-elections-should

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‘Same difference? Female (and male) members of Britain’s political parties’ (with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb), Democratic Audit, 22 March 2018.

Six out of ten people who belong to political parties in the UK are men, although there are some pretty big differences between parties. There are also some smaller, but nonetheless significant differences between parties’ male and female members – differences we recently explored by bringing together four prominent women parliamentarians (Nicky MorganKirsty BlackmanJess Phillips, and Jo Swinson) to discuss findings from the ESRC-funded Party Members Project (PMP) run from Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University. Those findings were presented on 5 March at the London headquarters of the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank, with the cross-party panel of MPs invited to reflect on them in the light of their own experience as activists and elected politicians.

The PMP membership surveys (the most recent of which took place just after the 2017 general election and are summarized here) found that, although there were more male than female party members, both were more likely than not to be middle aged and middle class. When it came to ideology and policy, female members tended on balance to be more favourable to redistribution and more concerned about austerity than their male counterparts – although there are of course some notable differences between parties on this and other matters. Except when it came to the need for censorship, women tended to be more socially liberal. Women members were also keener on a softer Brexit and on the idea of a second referendum. As for campaigning, women tend more than men toward the more expressive activities, like using Facebook, rather than knocking on doors.

The PMP found that men and women joined parties for very similar reasons, although leaders appeared to be a slightly bigger draw for women, whereas more men than women saw membership as leading to a political career. That said, there was no difference in how male and female members got round to joining parties. Having joined, though, women tended to be more satisfied with what they got out of membership even if they were less likely to stand for election for and in the party. And when it came to reasons for leaving – something the PMP can explore because its survey research not only covers party members but people who’ve given up their membership – men were more likely than women to call it a day when they disagreed with the direction their party was taking; women, on the other hand, were more likely than men to do so for financial reasons.

All this seemed to strike a chord with the MPs. Women, Nicky Morgan felt, only tended to get involved if they thought their doing so would make a real difference – something which could be hard to persuade them of if a party limited members’ role in choosing leaders and helping to formulate policy. It wasn’t unusual, she added, for men to join with higher expectations about the prospects for rapid advancement and so to leave if those expectations were dashed; women on the other hand, were often prepared to play behind-the-scenes roles if they felt those roles were practically important to the running of the party.

Kirsty Blackman echoed some of these points, noting that she felt the SNP should be at an advantage in this respect because it was relatively easy for members to play a part in candidate selection and policy-making. She would, however, like more women to get involved in campaigning and suggested the key might be to better explain why some of the activities that women appeared to be less keen on were actually important – not least because activities like canvassing and leafletting were often the way people who wanted to become candidates proved their commitment. Getting more women involved in carrying out those activities, then, would probably lead to more women standing for (and winning) selection contests in the long run.

While agreeing with all this, Jess Phillips was adamant that parties needed to make a particular appeal to women members, running, for example, women-only campaign sessions to overcome some of the initial concerns some women had about such activities. She also noted that women, often because of family responsibilities, found that the traditional times canvassing and leafletting were carried out (early evenings and Saturday mornings) didn’t suit them. Partly (but only partly) because of this, women were often rather more reluctant than their male counterparts to sign up – something she navigates, when asking members if they’d be willing to volunteer, by including a ‘Maybe’ box which, she finds, women are more willing to tick (after which they get a follow-up phone call that almost always results in them saying ‘Yes’). She also made the point, though, that there were other inequalities that fed into lower participation by women at the grassroots, in particular class, especially now that fewer working-class women seem to be organised by unions than was the case in days gone by.

Jo Swinson concurred that parties simply had to do something about all this, particularly if they were concerned – as they ought to be – about female representation both in local authorities and in parliament: since grassroots members were the talent pool and the start of the pipeline, then more women needed recruiting. That means being more pro-active than they have been before: structural and cultural inequalities often meant that women were less likely than men to take the first step unless they were explicitly invited to do so. Existing female MPs and councillors had a part to play as role models but parties had to be careful, too, to bill things like introductory meet-ups in ways that didn’t unconsciously appeal more to men than women – the ‘Lib Dem pint’ evenings in a local pub being an obvious example.

In the Q&A with the audience of journalists, party officials and the odd academic, there was widespread agreement that parties might also need to re-think the definition of what being a good, hard-working activist meant, since this was in itself clearly gendered. The live issue of sexual harassment was also discussed: while it was vital to talk openly about it, people felt, it mustn’t be allowed to discourage women from joining and getting active in parties – or in other political and campaigning activity which, at least initially, doesn’t necessarily involve joining a party but might be a gateway to doing so down the line. Finally, everyone agreed that, although there was clearly a greater reluctance among women than men to become party members, we need to be careful not to implicitly blame women for not coming forward: in the end, there was a lot more parties on all sides could and should be doing to encourage their involvement.

Originally published at http://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/03/22/same-difference-female-and-male-members-of-britains-political-parties/

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‘Where have all the women gone? The Tories have a serious gender problem’ (with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb), The Conversation, 15 March 2018.

The latest findings on the gender imbalance among the rank and file memberships of Britain’s biggest political parties make for worrying reading – particularly for the Conservatives.

Over-time comparison suggests that there are now fewer women belonging to the Conservative party than there were nearly a quarter of a century ago. The Tories have, in recent years, increased the number of women representing them in the House of Commons to 21% – an achievement that owes something to David Cameron’s modernisation project and to the sterling work of Ann Jenkin’s Women to Wincampaign, but perhaps even more to the unexpectedly strong result that the party chalked up at the 2015 general election. However, no such progress is being made in the grassroots.

The findings come from the latest surveys by the ESRC-funded Party Members Project (PMP) run from Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, carried out just after the last general election in June 2017.

The lack of women among the Tory rank and file could well turn out to be a serious problem for those interested in getting the party to look more like the country it wants to govern. As the recently-published comparative study by the Swedish political scientist, Drude Dahlerup, makes clear, anyone who is truly serious about getting more women elected to parliament is going to have to consider the introduction of quotas. But they will also need to pay attention to the pool and pipeline of potential candidates available to political parties since, if there aren’t enough women at the grassroots, then achieving anything like equality of representation will prove an uphill struggle.

What happened to Tory women? Party Members ProjectAuthor provided

Overall, far more men than women join Britain’s political parties, although the 61:39 ratio our 2017 surveys reveal means that the UK isn’t that unusual (or even that terrible) in comparative terms. Data suggests the gender imbalance in Germany is considerably worse and only a little bit better in the famously more egalitarian Nordic countries. And, in large part because more women than men have joined the British Labour Party in the last two-and-half years, things are more equal in the UK than they used to be. But, sadly, that’s far from true for the Tories. Right now, fewer than one in three grassroots Conservative members is a woman.

Change over the years. Whiteley P, Seyd P & Richardson J, Bale, Poletti and WebbAuthor provided

The situation might not be so worrying if the Tories could somehow tell themselves (and the rest of us) that the direction of travel was positive.

But all the surveys ever done on Britain’s three biggest parties clearly show that it’s anything but.

In marked contrast to Theresa May’s, Jeremy Corbyn’s grassroots membership is (like the Greens’) not that far off achieving gender balance. The SNP doesn’t do too badly either, relatively speaking at least.

UKIP – assuming for the sake of argument that it still exists – lies at the other end of the spectrum. Men make up three quarters of its members.

The gender imbalance in the Lib Dems is nowhere near that bad. That said, the party, which has never done particularly well when it comes to electing women MPs (even though it now has a female deputy leader in Jo Swinson), will be keen to improve on a situation where getting on for two-thirds of its rank-and-file members are men.

More women needed

For the Conservatives, a failure to expand the pool and the pipeline by attracting more female members will make it more difficult to build on whatever has been achieved so far at the parliamentary level. And with this long-term goal in mind, there is another statistic which should surely give the Conservatives serious cause for concern.

Corbyn: the future looks gender balanced. PA

The flood of new members into the Labour party since 2015 might not represent as much of a youthquake as the now familiar footage of photogenic teens and twenty-somethings mobbing Mr Corbyn suggests: after all, plenty of middle-aged and older folk have rallied to his (more or less red) flag, too. But, by our calculation, out of every 100 Labour members aged between 18 and 24, some 57 are women compared to 43 who are men. That should bode well for the party’s gender balance in years to come.

But the equivalent figure (and therefore the future) for the Conservative Party is truly frightening. By our reckoning, only five per cent of rank and file Tories are aged 18-24 but, shockingly, as many as 85% of those young adults the Tories have persuaded to join them are male rather than female.

Brandon Lewis and James Cleverly were recently appointed to the top jobs at Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) in order to up the party’s membership game. Our research suggests they’ve got their work cut out. Doubtless they’re the best men for the job – but they may be part of the problem.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/where-have-all-the-women-gone-the-tories-have-a-serious-gender-problem-93398

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‘Why women leave political parties’ (with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb), New Statesman, 7 March 2018.

More men than women join political parties. And new research from the ESRC-funded Party Members Project (PMP) conducted by the Queen Mary University of London, and Sussex University suggests that even when women do join, they think and act a little differently from their male counterparts. Even when it comes to why people leave parties – something that’s not at all uncommon – there are interesting gender differences.

Not all parties are the same, of course. Anyone familiar with the PMP’s recent Grassroots report will have noticed that while around six out of ten UK party members are male, there are big differences between, say, Labour, where the gender balance is 53:47 and the Tories, where it’s 71:29.

The differences between men and women who join the nation’s six biggest parties – Labour, the Scottish National Party, the Lib Dems, the Tories, Greens and Ukip – might not be so glaring (and when it comes to age and class, incidentally, they are virtually invisible) but they may well be significant.

Female party members tend to lean a little to the left of their male counterparts. They are also, in general, more socially liberal and keen to see a more diverse bunch of people elected to parliament – although this is less the case in the Conservative party, possibly because of age differences.

Probably because they’re under greater time-pressure, female party members, when compared to male members anyway, tend to prefer online to offline campaign activities. They’re Facebookers rather than door-knockers.

That might end up being more significant than it appears at first glance. After all, would-be candidates use their door-knocking tallies to prove their commitment and campaign skills to selection committees. Women may therefore be at a disadvantage, even if they do see party membership as the first step to a career in politics.

Interestingly, but perhaps depressingly, the project’s research suggests that those career expectations and aspirations are in any case more common among the men who join parties than they are among the women. Generally, though, both men and women join parties primarily because they want to promote their policies and ideas (and resist those put forward by their opponents).

Given the role principles pay in recruitment, it’s interesting in terms of retention that the research shows that female party members seem better able than men to tolerate conflict and disagreement with the direction their party is taking. When we look at the reasons given by members who leave, men are more likely to storm (or should that be flounce?) out on that score. Women, though, are more cost-conscious than men. Only one in ten men cited the need to save money as a reason for leaving, whereas it was a factor for a quarter of women.

What all this says about gender differences and how parties can best navigate and overcome them, we’ll leave to readers – and the parties themselves – to ponder.


Originally published at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2018/03/why-women-leave-political-parties

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‘The Numbers That Show It’s Wrong To Suggest Labour Disaffiliate From The Unions’, Huffington Post, 7 March 2018.

“Nothing”, wrote Momentum director and member of Labour’s NEC, Christine Shawcroft, in declaring her support for Jon Lansman’s bid to be the party’s next General Secretary, “would induce me to support a candidate from a major trade union, they stick it to the rank and file members time after time after time. It’s also time to support disaffiliation of the unions from the Labour party. The party belongs to us, the members”.

She’s since deleted the post.  Nevertheless, the reaction has been understandably furious.  Not only was organized labour instrumental in founding the party in the first place but many affiliated unions have, very much more recently, provided invaluable moral and financial support for its current left-wing leadership. Arguably, then, the party belongs just as much to them as it does to the members.

But even pointing this out is effectively to acquiesce in what is a false distinction between ‘rank and file members’ – including, ironically, members of Momentum itself – and the unions.  That’s because many of those self-same members also belong to those self-same unions.  In fact, research by the ESRC-funded Party Membership Project based at Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University reveals that around a third of grassroots Labour Party members are union members too – a far bigger proportion than is the case for any other political party in the UK.

It is worth noting that the proportion of Labour members who belong to unions seems to have dropped as the party’s membership has ballooned in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn standing for the leadership – but not by that much.  When my colleagues Paul Webb, Monica Poletti and I surveyed Labour’s membership just after the 2015 general election, some 39% of party members belonged to a union.  When we returned to survey the party just after the 2017 election, the figure was 32% – still way over the 5% of Tories, 11% of Lib Dems, 7% of Kippers, 21% of Greens, and 15% of Scots Nats, but admittedly down on two years before.

If we look in more detail at those people who joined Labour during and after the leadership election of 2015 then it becomes apparent that they are less likely to be union members than those who were members before Jeremy Corbyn declared his candidacy and then won the contest.  Probably around a quarter of these new joiners are union members.

Now, what we can say for certain about those Labour Party members who also see themselves as members of Momentum is limited, because, on our figures anyway, ‘only’ one in ten Labour members reckon they belong to the organization, thus giving us only small sample size.  However, inasmuch as we can tell from our respondents, nearly half of them are trade unionists.

Those figures don’t necessarily send a ‘delete your account’ message to Ms Shawcroft, but they do suggest that her belated discretion may have been the better part of valour.

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