‘Research with party members offers an important clue about how to heal Brexit divisions’, The Conversation, 5 February 2020.

Anyone wanting to understand post-Brexit Britain should make a beeline for a report published towards the end of last year by The Policy Institute at King’s College London. It draws a crucial distinction between two modern phenomena. On one hand there is affective polarisation – described in the report as “when individuals begin to segregate themselves socially and to distrust and dislike people from the opposing side, irrespective of whether they disagree on matters of policy”. On the other is issue polarisation – “the difference in values and attitudes on one or more issues”.

After sifting the survey evidence, the report’s authors find that “people on both sides of the Brexit vote dislike the opposing side intensely even though they don’t necessarily disagree with their positions on salient issues”.

In other words, while there’s plenty of evidence of affective polarisation, there’s much less for issue polarisation. This provides at least a degree of comfort for those of us who hope the UK can somehow move on from the deeply divisive politics of the past four years.

That’s not to say, of course, that moving on will be easy. And it will, in part, depend on how the nation’s politicos respond in the coming years. As the Policy Institute’s report notes: “voters to some extent take cues from party platforms and leaders, so polarisation among political leaders and activists can spread to the electorate.”

And that’s what makes the views of Britain’s rank-and-file party members important. While they don’t necessarily directly determine the tone and the direction their parties take, they do have an indirect and sometimes pretty immediate influence on them.

Witness, for example, how the slow growth of hard euroscepticism within the Conservative party eventually went on to have such dramatic consequences for the nation.

Don’t forget either that members also constitute the on-the-ground sales force for their parties. Because they interact on the doorstep with the public as well as with politicians, what they think, say and do about the UK’s relationship with the European Union really can matter. That’s especially the case as the nation decides what it wants its future relationship with Europe to look like.

Even partisans agree on some things

Over Christmas and the New Year, the Party Members Project, run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, asked the members of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist and Green parties (plus registered supporters of the Brexit Party) a couple of key questions about the UK/EU relationship.

The first touches on what, if you like, is the broad-brush future relationship between the UK and the EU. It shows a high degree of polarisation – and perhaps affective polarisation – between what are effectively two tribes.

Irreconcilable viewpoints? ESRC Party Members ProjectAuthor provided

On one side of the divide, Tory members and Brexit Party registered supporters are both overwhelmingly in favour of a more distant relationship. On the other, you have those who belong to Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens. They are even more overwhelmingly in favour of close alignment between the UK and the EU.

This would suggest that the country isn’t about to heal its Brexit divisions any time soon. But before we descend into total despair, it’s worth turning to the second question we asked. That’s because it’s a reminder that people – even highly partisan people – become less polarised when you ask them about specifics.

That’s even true for immigration – often a subject that plays into the “culture wars” narrative. We asked whether European nationals should be treated differently from people from elsewhere in the world when it comes to post-Brexit immigration.

Finding unity wherever we can. ESRC Party Members ProjectAuthor provided

While the two tribes are still pretty divided, there is far more overlap between parties on this second question than on the first one. Many members from the left-liberal parties are actually in agreement with Conservatives and Brexit Party supporters in wanting everyone to be treated the same. They might be said to come at the question from different viewpoints, but they still find some common ground, at least.

These findings at least give us a hint at how the UK might go about trying to heal divisions. Instead of focusing on Brexit identities and the big picture, it may be that people should move as soon as possible to talking about the myriad specifics that need sorting out. Now the UK has left the EU, the nation can best create a wider consensus on how to move forward by building on the fact that there’s much less that separates people on individual issues than separates them emotionally.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/research-with-party-members-offers-an-important-clue-about-how-to-heal-brexit-divisions-131161 

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‘What does Brexit mean for the UK’s party system?’, New Statesman, 5 February 2020.

The 2019 general election gave the UK’s party political kaleidoscope one heck of a shake. Only time will tell where the pieces will eventually settle – if, indeed, they settle at all. Still, we can make out at least some parts of the emerging pattern.

That task seems easiest when it comes to the colour blue – but perhaps only superficially. Boris Johnson managed to win the kind of overall majority that would have been beyond the Conservative Party’s wildest dreams just six months ago. At the European Parliament elections in June last year it polled less than ten per cent of the vote for the first time in living memory.

Just as importantly, it looks as if the winner of those European elections, the Brexit Party, now poses little threat to the Tories’ hegemony on the right of British politics. But no one should be so foolish as to write off Nigel Farage. If the UK’s political entrepreneur par excellence follows through on his plan to set up his Reform Party, then it could, given what is still widespread populist discontent with Britain’s political class, gain some traction – particularly if Brexit hits the economy hard and, or isn’t seen to change much.

At that point, however, a renewed insurgency on the populist radical right might be the least of the prime minister’s worries, since he may find that at least some of the new Tory intake, rather than constituting a cushion against the Brexiteer ultras who did for both Cameron and May, will join the ERG rather than provide an insurance policy against it.

If, then, the government finds itself facing a cliff-edge this summer, with the ERG demanding ‘a clean break’ and the rest of the parliamentary party understandably panicking about the prospects of ‘No Deal 2.0’, the Conservative Party, far from leading the country into a new golden age, could find itself even more split in 2020 than it was in 2019.

That said, there is at least a reasonable chance that a mixture of gratitude to Johnson and skilfully-employed parliamentary patronage may win the day, freeing up the headspace and time the Conservatives need to address a couple of long-term questions – namely, how do they win back so-called Tory Remainers (namely those voters who have shifted over to the Liberal Democrats) and how, without abandoning the party’s commitment to a smaller, less regulatory and less active state, do they satisfy those voters in the so-called Red Wall seats and make the realignment of 2019 permanent.

As for the other pieces of the party-political kaleidoscope, the yellow part of the pattern also seems reasonably predictable. For the SNP, any disappointment at being unable to stop Brexit was mitigated (some might even say trumped) by the opportunity it now has to insist that the Tory government in London cede Scotland a second independence referendum. Indeed, the more minimalist the deal Johnson ends up negotiating with Brussels, in some ways the better for the Nationalist cause.

Sure, the 47 SNP MPs in the Commons will take an eagle-eyed interest in the details of that deal. But their main focus will be on whipping up support for the party in advance of the 2021 elections to Holyrood, knowing that a big win on a manifesto calling for a referendum will put huge pressure on Westminster and Whitehall to grant what will at that point look to many voters (in all parts of the UK) as their wholly legitimate right to self-determination. Whether the Conservative Party really would stick to its current refusal to contemplate giving the Scots another chance to break it apart, is a moot point.

As for the other nationalist (and, in the case of Northern Ireland, unionist) parties they, too, will be focused as much on their own political institutions as on the consequences of any deal (or lack of one) for their economies. They remain, of course, a part of the pattern formed by the party political kaleidoscope – but not, perhaps, as important a part as when the DUP supposedly (and, as it turned out, only supposedly) had the Conservatives by the proverbial short and curlies in the wake of the 2017 election.

The penultimate – orange or yellow – part of that pattern will also be less important than many might have forecast last year. The Lib Dems returned only 11 MPs – the significantly increased number of second-place finishes they racked up providing precious little consolation for expectations dashed. Quite where they go from here is not clear. A new leader – possibly the newly-pansexual Layla Moran – could help turn things around. But perhaps the best advice would be to go back to their constituencies and prepare for (local) government.

Finally, we turn to the most unpredictable, red, part of the pattern formed by the post-election party political kaleidoscope. The fortunes of the Labour Party would seem to depend hugely on the result of its leadership contest, with the winner to be announced in March.

Should Labour plump for some kind of continuity-Corbyn candidate, then, in the minds of the moderate bulk of the party’s MPs at least, all hope of a swift recovery (indeed any recovery at all) may be lost. Their consequent despair could (again, ‘could’ not ‘will’) perhaps prompt enough of them (namely a sufficient number to allow them to become Her Majesty’s Opposition) to set up a new centre-left party (perhaps absorbing the Lib Dems) to see it succeed where Change UK (remember them?) failed so miserably.

If, on the other hand, Labour ends up picking a more obviously voter-friendly candidate like the current front-runner, Keir Starmer, then its long-term (if not necessarily its short-term) prospects are possibly a little brighter – especially if the party can be made to realise that it has to be more than a trade union-based pressure group for the poor, the public sector, and the ‘woke’.

Even then, much will depend on how Labour’s new leader handles Brexit. The key will presumably be to make it clear to the electorate – as Starmer, to be fair to him, already has – that Labour now accepts that we have left and that the focus now has to be on holding the government to account for whatever comes next.

Precisely what that will be, will gradually become clearer after 31 March. Whatever, it is is unlikely to make for plain sailing for any of the UK’s political parties. The kaleidoscope may end up being shaken once again – and sooner than we think.

Originally published at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/02/what-does-brexit-mean-uks-party-system

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‘We asked Labour members why their party lost. Here’s what they said’, LabourList, 3 February 2020.

Last week saw reports of a couple of internal takes on why Labour lost the general election. In a report circulated to the national executive committee by the party’s election co-ordinators and leaked to the FT’s Jim Pickard, most of the blame was put not on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and Labour’s left-wing manifesto but on its difficulties in dealing with Brexit and an incredibly hostile media. Meanwhile, earlier in the week, the Guardian’s Kate Proctor was given sight of some of the thousands of submissions by ordinary party members to the Labour Together review commission, which included complaints about “gimmicky policies, horrible inefficiency and factional promotions”.

The commission is still taking submissions. It is unlikely to be in a position to fully analyse and publish those survey responses until the spring, at which point it will be fascinating to see how much of gap there is between members’ views on why Labour crashed to its worst defeat since 1935 and what the voters themselves have told survey researchers.

Before then, however, we can get an insight into that question by exploring the responses of party members to a survey conducted by the ESRC-funded Party Members Project (run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University) of 1,353 members a couple of weeks after the election. The survey created bit of a splash at New Year when it suggested that Keir Starmer had a pretty convincing lead over his rivals in the leadership race. But its main purpose this time around – along with surveys of members of other parties – is to look at campaigning.

In the course of the survey, we asked a few questions that give an insight into Labour members’ takes on why the party did so badly. The most revealing is probably the one that asked: “If you had to name one thing that went wrong for the Labour Party during the general election campaign, what would that be?”. Rather than forcing respondents to choose from a pre-prepared list, the question allowed them to write in whatever they thought, albeit obliging them to simplify and prioritise.

Write-in responses, of course, are rather harder to analyse. As the commission will no doubt discover, the exercise takes a heck of a lot longer than you hope it will and inevitably involves a degree of interpretation. Moreover, some responses are just so idiosyncratic that they simply can’t be convincingly coded. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to discern some significant overall patterns, so here goes.

Let’s start with explanations that were offered only by a very small minority of the party’s rank and file, perhaps contrary to some of the media stereotypes of Labour members. Doubtless a number of right-wing commentators will be delighted to hear that some members blame the party’s defeat on the fact that votes are stupid, gullible, ignorant, and even moronic (all terms that were actually used). But responses like that represent only a tiny minority – less than 1%.

The number who blame antisemitic smears runs to less than a handful. The proportion who blame the defeat primarily on the fact that, in one member’s words, “Blairites and centrists tried to destroy us because they are spoilt children who won’t accept democracy” was higher. But, at just 2%, it is nevertheless relatively insignificant.

Interestingly, some 7% of members put the blame for defeat mainly on an overambitious manifesto and message that, broadly speaking, they believed lacked realism, focus, coherence and clarity. This dovetails with the critique already coming from some seasoned election-watchers both inside and outside academia: there is little point offering a bunch of policies that are relatively popular in isolation but that voters don’t trust can be implemented.

Post-election polls also point to Jeremy Corbyn rather than Brexit as being the biggest single barrier to people voting Labour – and it’s clear that some members agree. 18% think he was the party’s biggest problem. Nowhere near the number when you get when you ask voters (43%) – but one in five members thinking that the leader was the most important factor in their party’s defeat is not to be sniffed at.

From there we go to the biggest single reason put forward by Labour members for the party’s stunning defeat. One third of Labour’s rank and file told us that, if there was one thing to blame, it was Brexit. Frustratingly (such is the lot of survey researchers), it isn’t possible to be certain whether this is because they believe Labour should have been more pro-Leave or more pro-Remain. 33% who blame Brexit includes 28% whose stance on it can’t be allocated into one camp or another. Only 1% and 4% respectively clearly believe either that the party lost because it didn’t adopt a stronger pro-Remain position or because it backed a second referendum and failed to support getting out of the EU.

It is worth, noting, however, that a fair few of those who blame Brexit yet aren’t perceptibly pro or anti make the point that it was the party’s indecision and lack of clarity on the issue that was the problem.  Again, this accords with the view of election experts, like my UK in a Changing Europe colleague, Sir John Curtice, who argues that, yes, this was a Brexit election but that it was won by the party that clearly chose a side and lost by the party that failed to do so. The Conservatives managed to bring onside nearly all of those Leave voters who voted either for them or for the Brexit Party at the EP elections in 2019. They also hung on to plenty of Tory Remainers who just couldn’t contemplate a Corbyn government. Labour lost a whole bunch of Leavers but failed to bring together Remain voters, far too many of whom defected to the Lib Dems.

But if Brexit is the most popular explanation for what went wrong among Labour’s grassroots members, the second most popular is equally interesting because, possibly unlike Brexit, it’s an ongoing problem. Almost a quarter of Labour members – 23% – appear to hold what they see as an inherently biased media (both print and broadcast) most responsible for the party’s defeat – or as one put it: “Tory funded MSM lies and misleading articles and campaigns along with daily lies and propaganda on Tory owned main TV channels starting with the BBC!”.

While it may be tempting to dismiss this as paranoid or delusional, research from Loughborough University suggests that under Corbyn, Labour did indeed receive very negative coverage, at least in the press, compared to the Tories. That said, this is something that the party can probably do little about – in opposition anyway and probably even in government, given that the UK is a liberal democracy. The only recourse may be to choose a more voter-friendly leader and policy platform. Only a couple of months to go before we see if that proves possible.

Originally published at https://labourlist.org/2020/02/we-asked-labour-members-why-their-party-lost-heres-what-they-said/ 


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‘Labour leadership race: survey shows Rebecca Long-Bailey only just scrapes majority among Momentum members’ (with Paul Webb), The Conversation, 15 January 2020.

Left-wing campaign group Momentum attracted a mixture of anger and ridicule when it announced that it would not ballot its membership on which candidate it should endorse in the Labour leadership contest. Instead, the group simply asked members to vote on whether to accept or reject an official resolution to support Rebecca Long-Bailey.

Our survey of Labour Party members – commissioned from YouGov by the Party Members Project run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University – suggests critics of the decision may have a point.

By no means all those Labour members who told us they also belonged to Momentum are fans of the woman who some have labelled the “continuity Corbyn” candidate. Indeed, only the barest majority of them named her as their first choice when we presented them with a list of possible runners and riders.

True, Long-Bailey looks to be the overall winner among Momentum members, three and a half times as much support as Keir Starmer, with the other candidates even further behind. But the fact that, in our survey, Long-Bailey was the first choice of only just over half of Momentum members suggests that those members deserved to be asked a genuine question, not just to confirm (or otherwise) the choice made by the organisation’s National Coordinating Group.

The ideal candidate

But that’s not all our survey reveals when it comes to how Labour members feel about the leadership contest. We also wanted to know which qualities in a leader party members valued most highly.

The results we publish here refer only to what proportion of members ranked that particular quality as number one on the list. But they do suggest that while voter appeal is seen by many Labour members as important (more so, maybe, than they are often given credit for), being seen to have strong political convictions also matters.

Perhaps that’s not surprising since, almost by definition and as our recently published book shows, most party members are pretty ideological creatures. Labour’s rank-and-file are, by and large, very left wing and very socially liberal. But this also means that there is relatively little room for variation between the supporters of the various candidates. Yes, Long-Bailey’s backers are a little more left-wing and socially liberal than her opponents’ supporters, but the differences are tiny.

What’s more interesting, therefore, are the differences in the leadership qualities that are most highly valued by the supporters of each candidate and then which candidate is favoured according to which quality members thought most important.

For Starmer’s supporters, his biggest draw would seem to be his ability to appeal to and to be in touch with voters; being seen as a strong leader and being able to unite both party and country also count. For Long-Bailey’s supporters, however, her appeal would seem to be overwhelmingly down to the perceived strength of her political convictions.

For Phillips’s fans, her appeal to ordinary voters and strong leadership matter most. For Nandy’s supporters, it is about her perceived appeal to and being in touch with voters. Her potential to offer strong leadership also matters. For Thornberry’s, it is more of a mix of factors: strong convictions, being in touch, strong leadership, intelligence and electoral appeal all come into play.

If, however, we break things down the other way around and look instead at which candidate comes first among those members who rank a particular leadership quality highest, we see a clearer picture emerge.

Starmer comes first in all categories except likeability, being in touch and strength of convictions, where Long-Bailey wins. Once again, her key asset would seem to be the fact that she is seen to believe in something.

Judging by the campaign so far, Starmer’s team is doing its very best to stress to Labour members that he also believes in something. This is a wise move. Historically, when picking leaders, parties have taken candidates’ convictions into account but have tended to put more of premium on their perceived ability to unite the party and then on their supposed appeal to voters. Nowadays, when members rather than MPs matter most to the decision a party makes, convictions can really count.

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‘Remember: the average Labour member isn’t as political as you think’, New Statesman, 13 January 2020.

Just after New Years, we – the ESRC-funded Party Members Project run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University – released the results of a survey of Labour Party members that we’d commissioned YouGov to run for us over Christmas.

We knew these results might cause a stir, showing as they did that – at least when our questionnaire was in the field – that Keir Starmer appeared to be a fairly long way ahead of Rebecca Long-Bailey, seen by many as the continuity Corbyn candidate.

Cue predictable accusations that a thousand or so people couldn’t possibly give anyone an idea of how the membership as a whole is thinking, that no one should trust any survey conducted by an organisation “owned by Tories”, and that we’d set a bandwagon rolling that would skew the result against the left.

The purpose of this piece is not to answer those accusations – we’ve already attempted to do so elsewhere – but to provide another perspective on members’ views on the leadership

We can do that not by reheating their responses to our questions, which asked them to rank a number of potential runners and riders from a pre-prepared list by focusing on an open-ended question that, earlier on in the questionnaire, simply asked them who they thought should replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

Not altogether unpredictably, these also suggest Starmer is the single most popular choice, named (unprompted remember) by 21 per cent of members – twice as many as those (10 per cent) who named Rebecca Long-Bailey.

(Note to journalists and political insiders, by the way: just one solitary respondent referred to her by her initials, so maybe stop trying to make “RLB” happen.)

In third place, Jess Philips – named unprompted by 7 per cent of members – wasn’t in fact that far off Long-Bailey.  But on these early figures, you can see why Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry (both on 3 per cent) and Clive Lewis (on 2 per cent), for all their strengths, may struggle to obtain sufficient CLP nominations.

And you can see why, in the end, discretion proved (by far) the better part of valour for Corbyn loyalists like Ian Lavery (1.5 per cent) and Barry Gardiner (0.5 per cent).

Members’ unprompted responses also give a very strong clue (but don’t of course constitute a sure-fire prediction) as to the likely outcome of the contest for deputy leader, even though we didn’t ask about that particular battle.

That’s because 6 per cent of members made Angela Rayner their pick for the leadership, compared to the handful who named Dawn Butler (0.4 per cent) and Richard Burgon (0.2 per cent).

Of course, it’s always possible that Labour members value a different set of qualities in a deputy – after all, they picked Tom Watson as Corbyn’s number two back in 2015. But Rayner is, on these numbers, going to be hard to beat.

Talking of Corbyn, by the way, leads us to two final points – one trivial (if, perhaps, revealing) and one potentially very important.

On the first point, connoisseurs of all things Labour might enjoy the fact that some three per cent of members expressed the view that Jeremy Corbyn should stay on as leader. Clearly, it’s not just Jane Austen’s heroines who ‘love longest, when all hope is gone.’

On the second point, it is always (always, always) worth recalling that when we conducted the same exercise just after the 2015 election – at a point when we really had no idea who would stand to replace Ed Miliband and so only asked members to write in suggestions rather than pick from a list – just two or three out of around eleven hundred who responded put down Jeremy Corbyn.

That a man whom I doubt even many Labour members had heard of (or at least knew much about) then went on to win the leadership surely goes to show that the coming campaign can make a difference – not least because, for all that the contest can currently be presented as being Keir Starmer’s to lose, by far the most popular choice when we asked members for their unprompted suggestions was a Mr or Ms Don’t Know/Can’t Say, on a stand-out 32 per cent.

In short – and no doubt Starmer’s team knows this as well as anyone – in this Labour Leadership contest, it ain’t over until it’s over.


Originally published at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/01/remember-average-labour-member-isn-t-political-you-think

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‘Keir Starmer, Brexit and the Labour leadership contest’, 10 January 2020.

If – and, in spite of our ESRC-funded Party Members Project survey last week suggesting he was some way ahead of his rivals, it remains a big if – Keir Starmer succeeds Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, then one could well trace his success back to 25 September 2018.

That was the day when, at the Party’s Annual Conference in Liverpool, Starmer, speaking in his capacity as Labour’s Shadow Brexit Policy, earned a standing ovation from members when, in a departure from his agreed text, he not only declared that ‘We must keep all options on the table’ but added ‘And no one is ruling out the option to Remain.’

The leadership was, to put it mildly, none too pleased.

Corbyn and co., having bowed to internal pressure to concede the possibility of a second referendum were still at that stage suggesting it could only be on the terms of any deal rather than offering the public a chance to reverse the result of the vote in 2016.

The vast majority of delegates, however, wanted more. True, many of them had spent a fair bit of their time on the conference floor waving Palestinian rather than EU flags.

But like the party membership more generally, they were overwhelmingly pro-European, pro-People’s Vote, and pro-Remain.

In short, and to borrow from a phrase that emblazoned many a free t-shirt given away in Liverpool that year, they still loved Corbyn but they really hated Brexit.

Starmer, by staying in the Shadow Cabinet rather than flouncing out of it, by patiently working from the inside to pull Labour towards a stance that offered at least a chance of preventing what many in the party regarded (indeed still regard) as the calamity of the UK leaving the European Union, had already won their respect.

But that day he won their hearts, too.

And he carried on winning them by doing what virtually no other Labour politician could do without being condemned as a centrist ‘melt’ or told to ‘join the Tories’ – namely openly defying ‘the absolute boy’.

A couple of months later, Labour’s leader told Der Spiegel that Brexit couldn’t be stopped. Up popped Starmer on SkyNews almost straight afterwards to say that, yes, it could be.

True, Starmer wasn’t ultimately able to push his leader off the fence completely.

And it is hard to believe that the position Labour adopted in its manifesto – that, if elected, it would negotiate its own deal and then put it to a referendum against the option of remaining in the EU without its leader coming down on one side or the other – was one that, in his heart of hearts, he truly supported.

However, Starmer had, most members probably felt, done as much as was humanly possible – especially given how many of those with huge influence over the leadership seemed perfectly happy to see the UK leave either because they were Lexiteers or because they believed that any attempt to stop it happening would cost Labour the election (a belief that Labour’s catastrophic defeat last month appears only to have strengthened).

Whether Starmer has any genuine sympathy with that analysis is surely doubtful.

But nor is he likely to go out of his way to offend anyone who does. He is after all in the Labour leadership contest to win it, not simply to ‘broaden the debate’.

And he knows that there is a significant difference (64% compared to 40% in the final simulated round of voting, to be precise) between his support among Labour members who voted Remain and those who voted to Leave.

True, this is hardly a huge disadvantage given that at least eight out of ten Labour members wanted to stay in the EU. But why risk alienating the minority that didn’t?

He also has to think about the others who will take part in the contest – ‘registered supporters’ and affiliates, be they members of socialist societies or opted-in trade unionists – whose views on Brexit we know less about.

To do that would be to hand the votes of Labour’s leavers to Rebecca Long Bailey, whose support already splits, if we take the final simulated round of voting, 36% to 60% in favour of those members who plumped for Brexit at the 2016 Referendum.

The same concerns, of course, apply to Labour’s other leadership hopefuls.

For instance, Jess Philips, although her support among members seems fairly evenly split (proportionately speaking) between Leavers and Remainers, felt obliged to clarify her position after a television interview with Andrew Marr that was seized upon to claim she was committing Labour to campaign to rejoin the EU.

Just as importantly, anyone who has the faintest chance of emerging as Labour leader in April also needs to think not just about the ‘selectorate’ but the electorate – the millions of voters for whom the leadership contest is little more than a sideshow but often have views on Brexit that contrast sharply with those of Labour’s membership.

Starmer was surely right, as well as shrewd, then, to acknowledge to Marr that ‘We are going to leave the EU in the next few weeks and it is important for all of us, including myself, to recognise that the argument about leave and remain goes with it’ so ‘We have to adjust to that situation; the argument has to move on.’

But just as Brexit isn’t going to go away for the country, it isn’t going to go away for Labour either.

And whoever the party chooses as its leader is going to need to handle the issue a whole lot better than did Jeremy Corbyn.


Originally published at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/keir-starmer-brexit-and-the-labour-leadership-contest/

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‘Reflections on releasing political polling results into the big wide world’, QMUL Blog, 3 January 2020

Designing and commissioning a survey and then releasing it into the wild is always a risky business – especially, it seems, if it involves party members.  After all, they are, almost by definition, incredibly passionate about their politics – so passionate that, if the survey doesn’t show what they’d like it to show, then they can get very angry very quickly.

The Party Members Project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council is run by me and Professor Paul Webb (University of Sussex) – the co-authors (with Monica Poletti) of a recently published book, Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century.

The results we released on the Labour leadership race reflect the responses of 1059 Labour Party members to questions that formed only a small part of a more detailed questionnaire, which, with the help of YouGov, we have asked members of six political parties at the last three elections.

But obviously, both in the view of broadcast and print media, they are incredibly newsworthy – and, judging by some of the social media responses, pretty controversial, especially, it appears, if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of people planning on voting in the contest to decide who is going to try to turn around Labour’s fortunes after its worst electoral defeat since 1935.

The survey which, because it asked respondents to rank candidates, allowed us to simulate the sequential rounds inherent in the alternative vote system used by Labour to elect its leader. It revealed that the front-runner, right now anyway, would appear to be Keir Starmer rather than the so-called ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey.

That news – understandably – did not go down too well with those hoping to see either her (or perhaps another left-wing candidate who has not yet signalled their definite intention to run, such as Ian Lavery) triumph and therefore carry on where Mr Corbyn left off.

Cue what by now has become a familiar chorus.

First, it’s suggested that no-one should expect anything better from a polling organization ‘owned by Tories’, forgetting that the very same firm got the 2015 and 2016 Labour leadership contests (won of course by Mr Corbyn) pretty much spot on. This is despite the fact that YouGov’s samples are made up of self-declared party members recruited from its voter panel rather than from an official list of members provided by the party itself.

Second come the tweets arguing the survey should be dismissed since it covers the views of only just over a thousand out of around half a million Labour Party members – an objection often accompanied by the observation that neither the person tweeting nor anybody they know was asked.  This, of course, forgets that pollsters routinely use the views of just over a thousand voters to provide a snapshot of how tens of millions of people feel about political issues.

For anyone who has trouble understanding why this is possible, perhaps the best analogy out there is with a blood test.  An adult human body contains anything between nine and twelve pints of blood.  Should a doctor want to find out whether there’s something wrong with said human, she’ll only need to take the equivalent of one or two teaspoons, not one or two pints, to conduct the diagnostic tests required.

Often – to pursue the analogy a little further – those tests are used both to identify what’s going on but also to rule out other potential issues.  And in some ways one of the most interesting things for me about our survey is that it suggests that some of the things many assumed might be important in this contest may not turn out to be after all.

True, the Leave-Remain divide seems to be important: it looks as if Labour’s overwhelmingly pro-European membership really appreciated Starmer’s dogged determination not to flounce out of the shadow cabinet but to hang on in there in order to drag Jeremy Corbyn towards a more pro-Remain (or at least pro-Referendum) position.

On the other hand, although there’s been a lot of talk about it being time that Labour had a female leader, gender doesn’t seem to be playing much of a role here: Labour’s female members are not particularly inclined towards female candidates.

There’s also been talk, in the wake of Labour’s loss of seats in the North of England, about Labour needing to avoid picking another leader from London. Labour’s northern members, however, seem to be just as keen as members from other parts of the country on Starmer, a Londoner.

Class doesn’t seem to be much of a dividing line either. Initially, most candidates’ support is not that much higher or lower among Labour’s middle class (ABC1) or working class (C2DE) members than it is among the membership as a whole.  That said, Long-Bailey does better among working class members than among members as a whole, while Starmer seems to do better among middle class members.  This is no great disadvantage for Starmer, however, because some three-quarters of Labour members can be counted as middle class ABC1 voters.

Age doesn’t appear to be hugely significant either – at least in general – although it is noticeable that Long-Bailey is more popular among younger members than among older members, whereas the reverse is true for Starmer.  That said, Starmer is still more popular among younger members than Long-Bailey is or, indeed, any of the other candidates.

But, but, but.  All this reflects what Labour Party members were feeling over Christmas.  Things can and inevitably will change.

Some potential candidates who we suggested to members won’t end up running.  Others we didn’t suggest might well do.  And not all of those who want to run can be confident of securing the nominations required to enter the ballot.  Moreover, members won’t be the only people voting: they will be joined by members of socialist societies and some (though not all) members of trade unions affiliated to Labour; they will also be joined by people entitled to vote not as fully paid-up members but as ‘registered supporters’ – a category that has the potential to be manipulated in order to favour one faction’s candidate over the other.

Finally, as the 2015 Labour leadership showed, the campaign matters, momentum (small-m and big-M!) matters, and so, too, does personality.  Labour needs someone who can take the fight to a big character, Boris Johnson, big time.  That might be Starmer – a forensic parliamentary performer who has, unlike any party leader I can think of, also run a national organization before coming into politics.  But it could just as well be someone preternaturally prepared to tell it like it is.  Don’t be surprised, then, if someone like Jess Phillips (who, incidentally, came third in our simulation) turns out to be this contest’s proverbial dark horse.


Originally published at https://www.qmul.ac.uk/media/news/2019/hss/reflections-on-releasing-political-polling-results-into-the-big-wide-world.html

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‘Will the new Tory intake help to build a more progressive party? Don’t count on it’, Guardian, 19 December 2019.

Each general election brings with it a bunch of new MPs itching to make their mark – especially if, as in 2019, it results in a big turnover of seats. And this one has given us a new intake of 140, nearly 100 of whom are taking their places on the Conservative benches, a third of them from the so-called “red wall” seats gained from Labour on 12 December.

Encouragingly, a fair few of these new Tory MPs, such as 24-year-old Sara Britcliffe, who represents Hyndburn in Lancashire, are young and female (eight of the new Conservative intake are under 30). And a number of them are from the LGBT community – including Carshalton’s Elliot Colburn, pictured in the papers kissing his boyfriend after the results were declared. Many are also, like North Norfolk’s Duncan Baker, hyper-local to their constituency – which is what voters always tell researchers is actually most important to them. The Tories bet, correctly, on that improving their chances, particularly in the north.

More depressingly perhaps, at least for those who worry about the rise of the so-called “political class”, is the fact that the new intake includes a number of former special advisers – nine (by my reckoning) on the Tory side, although only one elected (probably tellingly) in a northern seat. Recent history suggests they will be fast-tracked, leaving fellow newbies, including those with local government experience, behind in their wake.

But even those MPs will find that the odds are stacked against anybody from the new intake achieving political celebrity status any time soon. There’s only so much room, after all, on the frontbenches – or in the high-profile select committees and television shows that present the ambitious newbie with an alternative route to stardom.

Standing out from the crowd, however, isn’t the only way that incoming MPs can have an influence. True, being touted early on as the cream of the crop by talent-spotting lobby journalists is no doubt a terrific boost to one’s ego, as well as to one’s chances of advancement. But the crop itself can sometimes stand out, too: while some parliamentary intakes over the years have been written off as unremarkable, others are hailed as vintage. And the law of averages probably means that the more newbies are borne in on the incoming tide, the more likely it is that a particular intake will be seen as something special.

The huge swing to Labour in 1945, for instance, brought into the Commons many of the “new men” (and back then, they were mostly men) such as Michael Foot and Harold Wilson. Their combination of relative youth, Oxbridge education and wartime service set them up nicely to become major figures in British politics for over a quarter of a century.

The same could also be said for their Tory counterparts such as Enoch Powell, and the equally important (if nowadays less well-remembered) Reggie Maudling and Iain Macleod. All of them entered the Commons in 1950 – partly as a result of their efforts, as “backroom boys” (and, again, they were all boys), to rebrand the Conservative party.

Fast forwarding a little, 1997 was also an important year – mainly because the new intake saw a doubling of the numbers of female MPs in the Commons. This was due mostly to Labour’s efforts to boost their participation, and the number of women elected to its benches increased from 37 to 101, earning them the sexist soubriquet “Blair’s Babes”.

But the significance – especially the eventual significance – of an intake doesn’t necessarily depend on a big win. Timing matters, too. Labour’s disastrous performance last week is already being compared to 1983. But that year’s Labour intake featured both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair (as well as including Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Howard, who went on to lead their respective parties to dreadful defeats). Lacking much competition, they rose quickly and to great effect.

Likewise, both George Osborne and David Cameron were part of the new intake in 2001 – a very bad year, electorally speaking, for the Tories. (Mind you, so was “failing” Chris Grayling.)

How, then, will this intake be remembered? Ultimately, the key question is what impact it will have on the party’s future direction. Many observers seem to be making two assumptions on this score. The first is that Conservative newbies will be so grateful to the prime minister for bringing them in on his coattails that they will give him an easy ride. The second is that they will be so concerned about hanging on to their marginal seats that they will ensure he cleaves to the end-of-austerity centre ground and avoids the kind of no-deal Brexit that would presumably hit their constituents hard.

Both assumptions could well prove mistaken. For one thing, MPs have grown more and more rebellious over the years: why should this intake be any different? For another, getting yourself selected as a candidate by a Tory membership which, broadly speaking, wants to keep the state out of the economy, immigrants out of the country, and the UK out of the clutches of the EU, means you probably think pretty much the same way, too.

Mild one-nationers, then? Don’t bet on it.


Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/19/tory-intake-young-mps

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‘The real Boris Johnson: one-nation Tory or raging populist?’, Observer, 15 December 2019.

Boris Johnson has long been a familiar face in British politics, so why does his ideology remain, in the words of his role-model Winston Churchill, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”? It’s a puzzle to which there are two, and possibly three solutions, none of which are necessarily mutually exclusive.

The first possibility – and probably the one that holds most sway, even among many of his admirers – is that when it comes to Johnson and his principles, there is, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, simply no “there” there. According to this take, the prime minister is no more and no less than an amalgam of ambition and ego. Having conquered the dizzy (and for him, anyway, increasingly well-remunerated) heights of broadsheet column-writing, Johnson simply turned to politics as a glutton turns to dessert.

The second possibility – almost as widely canvassed as the first and clearly highly compatible with it – is that it suits Johnson’s essentially Machiavellian purposes to defy definition and to keep everyone guessing. What better way, after all, for the politician-as-prince to expand their circle of potential allies and preserve maximum room for manoeuvre so as to avoid being encumbered with positions and policy commitments that later on risk becoming unpopular or else just plain inconvenient?

The third possibility is somewhat more prosaic but may ultimately come closer to the truth – a truth obscured precisely because it is effectively hiding in plain sight. It is that, for all that he can be cast (with the presidential seal of approval, mind) as a Trumpian radical right-wing populist, Johnson is not so much “the special one” as a pretty bog-standard British rightwinger.

And as such, he is a politician who intuitively appreciates (with a little help from his friends, most obviously one Dominic Cummings and a variety of Fleet Street’s finest), how best to appeal to the millions of Brits (13,966,565 of them last Thursday anyway) for whom many of the Conservative party’s prejudices and presumptions are simply common sense.

Most fundamental of these is the idea that Britain is, can be, and should be, Great – the clue, as they say, is in the name. To call that belief a sense of manifest destiny would be an exaggeration. But it is a patriotic attachment to the idea (however illusory) of an island nation, albeit one with global interests and reach, that is fundamentally unique and, yes, better than many of its closest neighbours, especially those unfortunate enough not to speak English – or else to speak it with a Scottish or southern Irish accent.

But this is far from the only Tory truth to be held as self-evident by Johnson and those who voted for him. Just as important is the idea that the state, whose first duty is to uphold law and order, should neither grow too big nor try to do for people what they should do for themselves – with the number of people seen as deserving of help taken to be much smaller (since at root it includes only the very elderly, the visibly infirm and, where they’re not “feral”, children) than is probably the case.

This supposed common sense also applies to tax and spending. Both, like government regulation, should be kept as low as possible since the money is presumed to come ultimately from individuals and businesses who know better what to do with their hard-earned cash than a bunch of bureaucrats in Whitehall or in the town hall. Nationally, the sums, to coin yet another cliche, have to add up. Austerity is therefore a regrettable but wholly rational response when things are tight.

All this links Johnson firmly with his predecessors – Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May. So does (with Thatcher as the exception that proves the rule) his eagerness – on full display in his remarks in Downing Street on Friday – to employ that emptiest of empty signifiers, “one-nation Conservatism”.

Each and every one of the prime minister’s predecessors, remember, made similarly heartwarming speeches on the steps of No 10 about healing a divided country, only to walk through its shiny black door and proceed to do pretty much the opposite.

The real Boris Johnson? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.


Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/14/boris-johnson-one-nation-tory-or-raging-populist

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‘Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are set to disappoint their supporters’, Financial Times, 7 December 2019.

“I’m not going back to the wilderness . . . We are here for the long run, and we will deal with whatever the result of the election is”, Jon Lansman, founding leader of Momentum, the 40,000-strong praetorian guard of Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said last week.

This spells trouble, whichever way you look at it.

In the unlikely event that Mr Corbyn becomes prime minister on Friday, Momentum and Labour’s wider grassroots membership of about 450,000 will be heading for at least a degree of disappointment.

Quite how they would handle their dismay at the inevitable confrontation with reality, when the spending taps don’t get turned on as fast as they hoped, would be fascinating.

But barring a bizarre rush to the barricades prompted by Boris Johnson’s refusal to endure a grilling by Andrew Neil, the more probable outcome of this general election would seem to be a Tory majority, possibly even a pretty comfortable one.

The consequences of that for Labour and its grassroots members — and indeed the country — are even more worrying.

It’s possible, of course, that a crushing defeat for Labour could (as the party’s remaining centrists will surely be hoping) bring its members, or at least some of them, to their senses.

But would it? More probable is that Labour’s membership, as well as those Labour MPs and affiliated trade union leaders who have co-operated with Mr Corbyn, will double down, blame the media and the “melts” for their idol’s defeat, and choose a leader carved in his image — one equally determined, come what may, to convert a country that doesn’t seem to want socialism.

In short: five more years of waiting in vain for the centre-left’s resurrection.

Does that mean, however, that Britain’s centre-right is sitting pretty for the foreseeable future? Not necessarily.

It’s hard to see how Mr Johnson stays in office in a hung parliament unless he offers the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National party a second referendum, which in itself could be career-ending. But if he gets his majority, the Conservative party’s grassroots members will be feeling pretty smug.

It was they, after all, who chose Mr Johnson as party leader and prime minister. By taking the UK out of the EU at the end of January, he will be carrying out their dearest wish.

But what then? No one serious believes the Johnson government, or any government, could get a decent trade deal with the EU done within a year.

Leaving without a deal would be a hard blow to the local economy in many of the constituencies that look set to turn from red to blue in this election.

Given all this, Mr Johnson will no doubt try to find some way of in effect extending the transition period beyond the end of 2020 in order to save the country — and, of course, himself — from the ensuing blowback.

In other words (and at least when it comes to “getting Brexit done”) a putative Conservative government is no less likely than a Labour equivalent to let down its most dedicated grassroots supporters. Indeed, it probably should let them down — and not just in the short-term.

Since the summer, Mr Johnson has essentially turned the Conservative party into an ersatz Brexit party — a rightwing, radical populist outfit precision-engineered to win the support of less educated, less well-heeled, and less socially liberal voters.

And he has been able to do so knowing that, owing to their distaste for Mr Corbyn, enough of his party’s better-off, better-educated and more socially liberal voters will stick with the Tories.

As long as Labour stays stuck in a mire of its own making, this strategy may well continue to work.

But if and when the opposition does get its act together — and history suggests this almost always happens, eventually — the Conservative party will, as the composition of the UK’s population continues to change in ways that probably favour progressives over reactionaries, face a different country.

The UK of the future will have demographics (and therefore prevailing values) very different to those of the rank and file party members who chose Mr Johnson as the nation’s head of government, or those of many of the voters who look like handing him a majority next week.

But Labour supporters looking for a crumb of long-term comfort in what looks set to be some serious short-term pain should not celebrate these better prospects too early.

Having pivoted to the right before this general election, Mr Johnson — a politician of no fixed principles — could don again the do-something, diversity-friendly face he wore as London Mayor after it.

The question is whether, whatever their own misgivings about the possibility of him doing just that, and about extending the Brexit transition period, the PM’s fans in the Tory grassroots (and, indeed, on the ideologically-refreshed Conservative backbenches at Westminster) would give him the benefit of the doubt.

Such is his star-power hold over them right now, I rather suspect they would. How long that hold can last, though, is the real question.


Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/7ecc340c-1816-11ea-b869-0971bffac109

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