‘Why Labour’s Brexit strategy may be in trouble – and why Theresa May has reason to worry too’ (with Alan Wager), New Statesman, 5 February 2018.

In spite of the fact that it accords with common wisdom – or maybe because of it – aside from the odd (sometimes very odd) political scientist, not many people will have heard of ‘May’s special law of curvilinear disparity’. Essentially, it argues that those holding the most radical views in any political party will be its members and, in particular, those members who hold positions within their parties – branch secretaries, association chairs, delegates to various national bodies, etc.

According to May (John, not Theresa; perhaps we should have mentioned that earlier), if you draw a diagram showing the distribution of views in, say, a centre-left party, with its voters at the bottom, its activists half-way up and then its parliamentary elite at the top, the line will bulge out to the left as you go from voters to activists, and then return toward the centre as you go from those activists to MPs. If you do the same for a right wing party, then that same line will bulge out to the right and then come back in again

If, then, you were to put Labour and the Conservatives on the same diagram, then you’d get a diamond shape looking something like this:

This fits with what most casual observers of British politics often assume, namely that grassroots members are the real zealots while MPs, who after all have to get elected, are, like most voters, slightly more pragmatic. This is the dominant narrative surrounding Labour in the Corbyn-era and is a trope traditionally trundled out whenever the audience at Tory party conferences has demanded a harder line on anything from trade unions, to tax and spend, and, in particular, law n’ order. ‘Trots to the left of them, blue-rinse dragons to the right’, as it were.

In fact, plenty of research suggests May’s law doesn’t actually hold up very well, not least because it tends to overstate the realism/centrism of a party’s MPs, who are rather more inclined to be true-believers than the unprincipled sell-outs they are routinely portrayed as by their critics. May’s law (not sure why we still call it a law, but we do) also underplays the extent to which members (including active members) like winning elections, even if that means moderating their opinions. And it forgets that, on some issues anyway, voters can be pretty radical, too.

If we return to our diagram, then, rather than a diamond, we might imagine a fan shape.

So, is Brexit a case in point?  Very possibly.

When it comes to the Conservative Party’s voters, some 69 per cent appear to have voted Leave in the 2016 Referendum.  The figure for members, according to research conducted for the ESRC-funded Party Members Project, is 70 per cent.  But for Tory MPs, research just released by UK in a Changing Europe and Queen Mary University of London’s Mile End Institute, puts it (excluding any MP who wouldn’t say or didn’t vote) at just 55 per cent.

As for Labour, the equivalent figures – this time for Remain – are 65 per cent (Labour voters), 89 per cent (Labour members) and 94 per cent (Labour MPs).

Which leaves us with a diagram looking something like this:

If we go into more detail and look at what members and MPs think about whether we should stay in the single market, then party members and MPs on both sides of the party divide seem to be singing pretty much from the same hymn sheet.

While the questions asked of each group differ, we can reasonably infer that on the Conservative side around three-quarters of MPs want out of the single market, while the proportion of members who want the same is comfortably over two-thirds.  On the Labour side, meanwhile, there’s even greater congruence: only around one in ten MPs and party members think we should leave, with the other nine, in both groups, thinking we should stay.

All of which is lucky for Theresa (if not John) May, although not so much, maybe, when one recalls that polling suggests – perhaps because, unlike MPs and members, they still believe we can have our cake and eat it too – that only around a fifth of Tory voters want out of the single market.

But if this mismatch between their MPs and members, on the one hand, and their voters, on the other, poses a potential problem for the Tories, things could get just as tricky for Labour. Of those members of the public currently saying they’d vote Labour, around two-thirds want the UK to stay in the single market, with just one in ten wanting out of it.

This suggests that Jeremy Corbyn’s (how best to put it?) ‘equivocal’ position on the issue is out of line not just with the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs and Labour members but with the overwhelming majority of Labour voters, too. Sitting on the fence, then, might not be quite as clever as some people seem to think – and it could turn out to be very painful indeed.

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‘Party members hold dear their privileges in candidate selection’, Times Red Box, 10 January, 2018.

Sarah Wollaston, chairwoman of the Commons health select committee, is everyone’s favourite Conservative backbencher. Well, maybe not everyone’s.

With her forthright, often outrageously non-partisan, views, she’s not always as appreciated by party managers as she is by those of us who appreciate common sense and respect for the facts.

But Dr Wollaston, you may recall, was the result of an experiment gone wrong – at least in the eyes of the Tory leadership and the whips’ office.

Back in the day, when David Cameron was desperate to give his party a makeover, the Conservatives thought it might be a good idea to pull some fresh faces into politics (and into the Tory fold) by holding open primaries.

In 2009 the Tory MP for Totnes, Anthony “I’ve got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral” Steen was one of the stars (and not in a good way) of the parliamentary expenses scandal.

He had to go, after which all the voters in the constituency were sent a ballot paper by the Conservative Party and invited to say who they would like to see stand as the party’s candidate at the forthcoming general election.

Perhaps surprisingly, over 16,000 of them took part and Dr Wollaston romped home with 48 per cent of the vote, winning election to parliament nine months later.

But instead of it marking the beginning of a revolution in the way the Tories went about picking their PPC’s, Totnes proved a flash in the pan. It didn’t take long for the party’s leadership to work out that the system was not only expensive but likely to produce candidates with way too much independence of mind.

But there was another drawback. Open primaries, it was claimed, also removed one of the main reasons why people bother belonging to the Conservative Party – an organisation that, aside from granting members the exclusive right to pick candidates for local and national office, offers them no formal say on its direction.

If you take away that privilege, it was argued, you only risk accelerating what, for the Tories at least, seems to be an inevitable long-term decline in membership.

It turns out, though, that Tory members are not alone in wanting to preserve their privileges in candidate selection.


As the chart (taken from Grassroots, the recent report by the Party Members Project based at Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University) shows, support for closed (i.e. members-only) methods of deciding who should stand as a candidate is overwhelmingly high in all four of Britain’s biggest political parties.

Where there are bigger differences between the members of those parties, however, is in what sort of people they would like to see more of sitting on the green benches at Westminster.

There is fairly widespread agreement that local MPs are a good thing, although it is interesting to note that the party differences are reflected in figures compiled by Demos on the proportion of parties’ MPs who were born, educated or live within 20km of their constituency, namely 74 per cent for the SNP, 64 per cent for Labour and only 33 per cent for the Conservatives.

When it comes to the other categories, however, the differences between the members of different parties – and particularly between the Conservatives and the other three – are very pronounced.


Apart from being more doubtful about the virtues of electing more working class MPs to parliament, the Lib Dems line up pretty near exactly with members of the Labour and Scottish National parties, with the Conservatives super-suspicious of anything that looks like political correctness or affirmative action.

LGBT MPs may be a little disappointed to see that their cause doesn’t seem to be as popular as those of other under-represented groups (particularly among the Tory grassroots), although this might perhaps reflect an awareness among party members that the UK parliament is already one of the most LGBT (or at LGBT-friendly) in the world.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/party-members-hold-dear-their-privileges-in-candidate-selection-t6rbj8gnb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That will only occur if two things happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“And with one bound he was free!”

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

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

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

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

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

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