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Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Strange Non-Death of Labour England

Labour's "historic defeat" has now been upgraded to an "existential threat". According to John Cruddas, who seems to have been as busy as Peter Mandelson, "I always thought that the 2010 election result was the worst defeat for Labour since 1918. It was worse than the crisis of 1931 and worse than 1983. But a week ago we suffered an even worse defeat than 2010, so this could be the greatest crisis the Labour party has faced since it was created. It is epic in its scale". This is hyperbole, not to mention a surfeit of numbers. 1931 saw the Labour leadership under Ramsay MacDonald desert the parliamentary party to form a coalition with the Tories and Liberals. In the ensuing election, Labour was reduced from 287 to 52 seats. Oddly, Cruddas also doesn't mention 1979, which was unquestionably the most pivotal defeat ever suffered by Labour. Some of the hype can be attributed to the collapse of Labour in Scotland, but the attitude of English and Welsh voters was more of a shoulder-shrug than a Glasgow kiss. If you want a picture of rejection, complete with bin-liners of clothes dumped in the street, look at the LibDems.


For John Gray, "The threat Labour faces today is larger and more genuinely existential than it has faced at any time in its postwar history. ... Ukip has emerged as the third party in the UK in terms of votes ... and in constituencies where it came second it might be capable of mounting a tough challenge to Labour in 2020". That "might" is doing a lot of work. UKIP is an unstable alliance of conflicting interests, not to mention egos, with little prospect of survival after the EU referendum. A narrow "in" vote might keep it going - Farage had little compunction about finessing his resignation, so ignoring the will of the people should be a doddle - but the idea that it will then supplant Labour as the official opposition to the Tories is far-fetched. The contradictions within UKIP between libertarians and conservatives, and between free-traders and protectionists, means that once the capstone of the EU is removed the edifice will start to crumble. Some working class voters in the North may be disenchanted with Labour, but there is little evidence they see UKIP as anything other than a passing protest vote.

Representative democracies tend to coalesce around two dominant parties, through which society can conduct a dialogue about economic privileges, fiscal transfers and personal liberty. For there to be a genuine existential threat to one of them, there needs to be a credible third party waiting in the wings, much as Labour stood relative to the Liberals in 1918, and that party needs to be seen (if only temporarily) as a better vehicle for the views and interests of one of the dominant parties' supporters. Recent examples are the SNP supplanting Labour in Scotland and Syriza supplanting PASOK in Greece. Both insurgent parties succeeded because they detached the majority of voters from the older party. As Gray implicitly concedes, UKIP failed to do this at what is likely to be their electoral high-watermark, not least because Labour actually increased its vote share. The recent wipeout of the LibDems, together with the incoherence of UKIP, means that Labour retains the advantage as far as English and Welsh politics are concerned.

UKIP is often presented as evidence of a wider vulnerability of the centre-left to nationalist populism across Europe, though this requires categorising other essentially centre-left parties, such as the SNP and Syriza, as nationalist or at least expressions of "national self-respect". Genuine nationalist parties (i.e. ones that reject internationalism and indulge racism), like the Front National in France, have deep roots via twentieth century fascism and authoritarianism (e.g. Poujade and Vichy) back to the clerical reaction and anti-semitism of the nineteenth century. Though the FN has expanded its "offer" to exploit the tensions of globalisation, it depends on a hard-core of well-organised ultras with long-standing influence in the state appartus (notably the police). It also depends on the prominence provided by a presidential system, which creates a focal point for the leader cult (despite the expectation that Marine Le Pen might, like her father, make the presidential run-off, her party has only two seats in the Legislative Assembly). This resilient milieu is lacking in England (the nearest equivalent would be Ulster loyalism), while the EU elections have provided only a weak plebiscitary opportunity, so the idea that Labour will evaporate as a parliamentary party in the face of the Farageprinzip is risible.

Some of this taste for the existential in Labour's fortunes springs from the opportunism of "modernisers" who see unfinished business in the links of the party with the trade unions. A couple of years ago, Martin Kettle, noting the common debt of Blair and Miliband to Eric Hobsbawm's 1978 critique, The Forward March of Labour Halted?, claimed that "the Labour party always has to transcend old failed labourism if it is to win and govern", which was a knowing misinterpretation of the old marxist's point about the structural inertia of the British labour movement. Hobsbawm traced the start of the halting process to the 1950s, encouraging the modernisers' tendency to see Labour as a product of the industrial age and thus bound for the same "post-fordist" scrap-heap ("post-industrialisation", "the new economy", and "the digital economy" are all examples of neoliberal teleology). But for all the talk about its roots in organised labour, and the salience of industrial relations in the 70s and 80s, Labour has predominantly been the party of tax and spend (i.e. fiscal transfers) throughout its history, a role it inherited from the Liberals.


The historic supplanting of the Liberal party by Labour reflected the transition from the nineteenth century economy (the concentration of capital through state intervention) to the twentieth century economy (the improvement of labour through state intervention). Just as free trade and empire gave us the Liberal party, so the welfare state gave us the Labour party. The Liberal party declined because it couldn't overcome the contradiction between its opposition to sectional interests and its suspicion of state power on the one hand, and the need to enable the collective management of labour for the benefit of capital on the other. As H G Wells put it, "It organises only because organisation is forced upon it by the organisation of its adversaries". It founded the welfare state, but was unable to mediate between capital and labour in the organisation of the economy (the near-coincidence of the People's Budget and Tonypandy were emblematic of this contradiction). Labour's success lay in combining state intervention in the social sphere (normalised for the middle classes by the Fabians) with support for autonomous labour power (i.e. unions and free collective bargaining).

The economic and geopolitical crisis of the 1970s saw the confluence of various, inter-related factors: increased international competition leading to manufacturing over-capacity and falling profitability; and the oil-price "shock", which triggered the growing unemployment and price rises of "stagflation". The solution in the 1980s was to use unemployment to restrain wage inflation, compensating mid-level workers through easier credit; reduce state intervention ("red tape") and taxes on business to grow profits; open up new sites of profit through privatisation; and offshore production to new labour markets (globalisation). The last of these, combined with the rapid advance of automation as the ICT revolution kicked in, has probably been the most profound as it led capital to the conclusion that it did not need to manage labour en masse any longer. The welfare state - the improvement of labour outside of the market system - was consequently downgraded and gradually absorbed into the market system itself. Once organised labour was defeated in the 80s, the Labour party found itself under pressure to ally with the progressive elements of capital (notably pro-EU multinationals) and rationalise the welfare state to meet capital's new priorities.

The charge of "labourism" - that the party was narrowly economistic, institutionally backward and socially conservative - suited the modernisers of New Labour because it supported the neoliberal proposition that the party should create the conditions for business to flourish, treat government as a species of management, and encourage a globalised liberal culture free of localised social obligations. In truth, labourism died in the 1970s. The SDP split, the failure of the Bennites in the 80s, and the success of New Labour in the 90s were all institutional responses to its demise, variously advocating a bourgeois European party, a sentimental popular front, and an Americanised election-winning "machine". Despite the silly propaganda about "Red Len" McCluskey, there was no return to labourism under Ed Miliband and no suggestion that the party was about to rediscover the socialism that had lain dormant for a century.

The role of the state changed during the neoliberal era to that of a talent-spotter (the "enabling state"), maximising the input of potential (hence the focus on education), but then acting as a filter to separate the compliant and profitable from the growing army of the economically redundant. Welfare has become a series of "tests" as opposed to entitlements, extending the success/failure paradigm now routinely applied to all public services. Job polarisation has increased the rewards to skill at the top-end of the labour "market", but it has also reduced the value of state subsidies at the bottom-end, hence the relentless focus on reducing "welfare bills" and the demonisation of the underclass. The problem is that more backward forms of capital - e.g. small businesses and landlords - remain wedded to state subsidies, in the form of in-work benefits, making it impossible for governments to radically "shrink the state". Despite 40 years of rhetoric, the extent of state intervention has barely changed even if its composition has (e.g. council housebuilding has given way to Ofsted).

The modern economy is characterised by endemic labour insecurity, the poor performance of the newer service sector relative to the older manufacturing sector, and the increase in those dependent on state benefits to top-up or replace wages (from 20% of working-age households in the late 70s to 38% now). We're seeing signs not merely of secular stagnation but of saturation in the service sector as technology serves to depress aggregate productivity. As Andrew McAfee puts it (explaining why "lousy productivity growth is entirely compatible with strong tech progress"), "lots of automation in manufacturing" may be driving "lots of jobs growth in the low-productivity service sector" and "sluggish overall demand growth". While wages remain low, the service sector has little incentive to automate, so investment is weak, aggregate demand is weak, in-work benefits are high, and job growth is biased towards low-wage and precarious roles. This in turn means inefficient use of skills in the short-term (e.g. baristas with PhDs), and a potential worsening of skills composition over the longer term (i.e. it makes less sense to invest in a PhD in the first place).


The existential question for Labour is whether the current transition - to an economy characterised by job polarisation and a surplus of cheap labour - requires a different political formation. Rachel Reeves's comment that "We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work" suggests not yet - i.e. the party remains focused on those who "aspire" to an improved life centred on work (ironically, labourism lives on in the neoliberal insistence that work is liberating). The financial crisis showed the limits of neoliberalism, but neoliberal hegemony remains intact. As it stands, there is little likelihood of Labour fundamentally changing its tune, but that is not in itself a vulnerability. None of the "challenger" parties has any real idea how to address these contemporary structural issues. The Greens have come closest, perhaps because their politics encourages imagination about the future, but their confusion over a basic income suggests that they remain trapped in the contradictions of their philosophy. The LibDems have no answer to the plight of the low-paid beyond a self-defeating increase in the tax-free allowance, while UKIP's insistence that low wages are solely the fault of immigrants isn't going to garner mass support.

It is easy to overdo the pessimism. Bill Mitchell reckons that "the Labour-type parties, given their historical charters, have now run out of meaning. They neither serve the working class (in its various states of employment and unemployment) nor capital and are thus expendable for both." Clearly, New Labour did serve capital well, and it even made some real improvements for society at large in terms of reducing pensioner and child poverty and repairing the fabric of public services. The problem is that this looks insufficient in an era in which the electorate is increasingly frustrated. This is not just a centre-left issue, but one for both main parties. Labour and the Conservatives have seen their combined vote share decline from a peak of 96% in 1955 to the point today where they each expect to secure roughly one third of the vote. Since 2005, no party has exceeded 40%, with the largest securing around 36% and the losers settling around 30%. In the context of recent history, a 35% strategy actually looks perfectly reasonable. In 1979, Labour lost the election with 36.9% of the vote. In 2015, the Tories won the election with precisely the same share.

Though there are now more alternative parties to the traditional big two, they tend to be variations on a communitarian theme, which is often styled as "nationalist" but can just as easily identify with another "higher power" such as the environment. John Gray is surely right to see this as partly a "reaction against the upheavals of globalisation" and the loss of autonomy. In this sense, UKIP, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have much in common, and are categorically different to the racist nationalism of old exemplified by the NF and BNP, despite the strain of bigotry among UKIP members and supporters (in reality, no worse than unpolished Tories). Their differences, which are essentially tonal, reflect their supporters' anxieties, thus UKIP promise a better yesterday, with a default policy of "Whatever it is, I'm against it". This has obvious limitations as the basis for a majoritarian platform. Nigel Farage turning the dial up to 11 isn't going to get UKIP over the line across the North.

In contrast to the Kippers' brand of John Bull nationalism, the charm of "civic nationalism", of the type embodied by the SNP and now advocated by Blue Labour, is that it allows us to construct a national identity that is simultaneously nostalgic and forward-looking, internationalist and socially cohesive. It's really just a sentimental rerun of our greatest hits, from Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn to the 2012 Olympics. But this is too diffuse to form a coherent political position on its own, as opposed to providing a veneer of self-deprecating patriotism that can accommodate both Jeremy Clarkson and Billy Bragg. The more misanthropic critics concede that this imagined community is gone, if it ever existed, but reveal their sorrow by attributing blame to moral decline and consumerist triviality. For David Selbourne, "What was once a polity is now largely composed of rights-bearing isolates, wheeling their trolleys through a shopping mall in unending file." The truth lies somewhere in between: we were never as homogenised a community as the myth has it, but we are not as atomised as the modern Cassandras believe.


Despite the anguish of the general election result, Labour does not face an existential threat, though it does face a stiff challenge to unseat the Tories. Its position in Scotland cannot get any worse, and Plaid Cymru looks incapable of mounting an SNP-like challenge in Wales. Any revival in LibDem fortunes is likely to hurt the Tories more than Labour (i.e. centre-left deserters were probably more disgusted by the coalition and less likely to return). UKIP isn't going to reinvent itself as a  social democratic alternative to Labour, and a nationalist party to the right of the Tories isn't going to graduate beyond a protest vote. Ironically, the genuine existential threat to the Labour party would be the desertion of the unions, not just because of the money but because of their organisational sinew, though this would probably just hasten the Blairite resurgence and the party's evolution into the British Democrats, dependent on big capital and City hedge-funds. There may be a vacancy for the Labour leadership, but there doesn't appear to be a vacancy for a centre-left party in English politics.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Uses and Abuses of History

History is written by the winners. This is a truism - there aren't many Nazi histories of World War Two - but it is also often bunk. History is written by those who wish to advance a particular interpretation, and they are often the losers, or at least those who think that the victory has been misunderstood. Unless they feel obliged to buttress their claims to legitimacy, most winners prefer to concentrate on the exercise of power rather than worry about justifying how they achieved it. A case in point is the absence of any (public) Tory analysis of the general election results, beyond simple triumphalism, and the surfeit of analysis produced on the left in respect of a "historic defeat". This flips the situation we saw in the run-up to the election, when the Tories busily rewrote history at every opportunity (high public debt was the result of Gordon Brown's profligacy etc) while Labour seemed singularly uninterested in putting the historical record straight.


Some attribute this failure to the lovable tendency of progressives to focus on the future (Paul Krugman getting all nostalgic about JFK's New Frontier schtick and Asimovian SF), while others see it arising from Ed Miliband's naive refusal to indulge the dark arts of spin (Simon Wren-Lewis calling forth Alistair Campbell). Both of these are actually neoliberal failings: the annihilation of the past that Tony Blair made the centrepiece of his strategy in the 1990s (Clause IV etc); and the managerialist belief that the electorate is a ball of putty in the right hands. Unsurprisingly, the Blairites have been quickest out of the traps in rewriting recent history, pointing eagerly at the sunny uplands of aspiration while deprecating the extreme anti-business policies of the Brown/Miliband years (yeah, right). Meanwhile, the return of spin is evident in the revival of tired old tropes, such as Labour's "loss of Middle England". Underlying this is a presumption that Labour suffered a decisive defeat, which the Tories aren't about to dispute.

Some Tory sympathisers have marvelled that this is the first government to increase its share of the vote since 1974, indeed the first to do so after serving a full term for over a century, however this ignores the fact that the last government was a coalition and that most of the Tory gains in seats came at the expense of their coalition partner. In fact, the Tories' relative performance, measured in terms of an increase in vote share and the quantum of votes, was weaker than Labour's. Their better performance in seats was down to preserving their 2010 position coupled with the peculiarities of first-past-the-post, which can be seen in the changing average of votes per seat - i.e. how many votes does it take to win a seat (this is not about "fairness", which is meaningless in an FPTP system, but distributive efficiency). Since 2005, Labour's average steadily worsened: 26,908 - 33,359 - 40,277. In contrast, the Tory average improved, but has now plateaued: 44,368 - 34,979 - 34,244.

This trend suggests that the growth of support beyond the two main parties (which now accounts for 1 in 3 votes cast) is currently hurting Labour more than the Tories. The erosion of support in the Tory vote has been cushioned in seats where they have a large majority and aided by LibDem defectors in LibDem/Tory marginals. In contrast, the erosion of Labour's support is occurring in Tory/Labour marginals in England, which prevented them from picking up enough seats last week to offset both losses in Scotland and Tory gains from the LibDems in the South and South-West. As this erosion is heading in apparently opposed directions on the political spectrum, i.e. to the Greens and UKIP, it presents Labour with a dilemma: do they try and pitch a UK-wide position, which means signalling either left or right, or do they localise their "offer", as is being urged in Scotland? I think this is a false choice that springs from the classic ideological critique by the right of the left, namely that it is an unstable coalition (misled by "outside agitators") and thus prone to fragmentation. In reality, the ex-Labour voters who have opted for the Greens or UKIP this time round are probably not so very different to each other in the bulk of their views.

The Blue Labour case - to focus on winning back Kippers in the North by "understanding concerns over immigration" - is weak. If Labour's biggest problem was the erosion of votes in its safe seats, this would push the votes-to-seats ratio down - i.e. the party would be winning seats with fewer votes. The fact that the ratio is going up confirms that Labour's bigger problem is that it isn't getting over the line in marginals, coupled with the impact of seats lost to the SNP in Scotland. Some of this will be down to the erosion of support by UKIP and the Greens, but this appears to have been more than offset by replenishment in the form of ex-LibDem voters, hence Labour's vote share in England went up 3.6%. The post-election poll commissioned by Michael Ashcroft shows that Labour lost almost as many voters to the Tories as to UKIP, while the Tories bigger loss to UKIP was masked by LibDem refugees. There is also evidence that the Labour party has continued to struggle in mobilising voter registration and turnout, specifically among the young and the poor (charmingly reframed by the Telegraph as "Lazy Labour"). Ed Miliband's indulgence of Russell Brand, who proceeded to back Labour after the deadline for voter registration had passed, was emblematic of this ineptitude.

The argument that Labour needs to win back Green and SNP supporters by being more "radical" is also dubious. Both parties have masqueraded as left-wing in order to attract disillusioned Labour supporters, which means that any sincere policy adoptions by Labour are likely to be outflanked by more rhetoric. Until the SNP start pissing-off Scottish voters, Labour will lack any leverage in Scotland. This means they need to focus on Holyrood, where the SNP are enacting policies that can be critiqued. Douglas Alexander might do better service for Labour if he now stood as an MSP in May 2016, particularly as the Scottish electorate is likely to be sympathetic to the idea that it needs an effective opposition in Edinburgh (consider the long-standing criticism of the poor quality of Labour's MSPs). The tactical oscillation of Scottish voters between Holyrood and Westminster elections came to an end in 2015 (and I admit I didn't expect it to be quite so jarring), but it's possible we'll see its inverse going forward - i.e. strong support for the SNP as the "national" party in Westminster elections, and more balanced support in Holyrood elections.

The Greens look like they may have inherited the LibDems' mantle as the default home of the middle class and youth protest vote. Rather than trying to compete for votes that are broadly spread across the country (and predominantly in safe Tory seats), Labour's best strategy would be a combination of respect - treating the Greens as an independent ginger-group to help move the Overton Window (e.g. recommending an open-minded commission on the basic income) - and hard-targeting of young voters in marginal seats where drift to the Greens might be decisive. Green support is far softer than that of the SNP, simply because many of its voters are as much (if not more) energised by issues of social justice as environmentalism. Without being too cynical about it, Labour doesn't need to do too much to attract these voters back. In comparison, Labour will only attract back voters from the SNP by gradually advancing bread-and-butter issues at Holyrood.

The silver-lining for Labour is that this means it isn't miles short of the winning line, despite the apocalyptic tones of much of the analysis, which perhaps explains why some Blairites always thought this was "a good election to lose". That said, there is no guarantee that the party can make up this lost ground quickly. The question is: how does Labour boost its popular vote by 2020? Given that voters do not move en bloc, strategies that talk of targeting particular demographic segments are usually just ideological fluff, appealing to mythical constructs like Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman. Similarly, trying to isolate particular policies in focus groups is unlikely to produce a coherent whole. The "battle for the soul of the party" won't be won by trying to turn inchoate fears and sympathies into marketing data "on a scale of 1 to 5", but by actively listening to people and getting them to develop their own ideas.

Labour's problem is that the Blair years have weakened the institutional capability of the party to do this, having replaced an active (and therefore troublesome) organisation with a passive one, and having made autonomy suspect (thus handing the SNP a gift in Scotland). As a post-democratic party, Labour finds itself lacking a democratic culture at precisely the point when it needs one most. The decision this week to have a four-month leadership election process is an obvious compromise between the Blairite desire for an early coronation by media acclamation and the non-Blairite desire for the party conference to act as a hustings. This will be spun by the Tory media, with soft support by the TV channels, as a union conspiracy to exert illegitimate influence. The interim Labour leadership might want to think about countering this, perhaps by reconnecting with the party's history of participatory democracy. Maybe Tristram Hunt could make himself useful on that score.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Liberal Democrats Win General Election

The last time I felt like this, Arsenal had just been hammered 6-0 by Chelsea in Arsene Wenger's 1,000th game. This is not because I was disappointed - I had thought that we might get a draw at Stamford Bridge last year and have had a nagging suspicion for a couple of weeks that the Tories would cobble together another coalition - but because avoidable mistakes had been ruthlessly exploited. It didn't have to be this bad. One prediction I feel safe in making is that Labour will now reimpose the "democratic centralism" of the 90s, which means a managerialist (and thus Blairite) resurgence. The prominence of Alastair Campbell on election night and after, regretting the inadequacy of Labour's "narrative", is worth noting, as much as the queue of "modernisers" urging Labour to rediscover "aspiration" and "celebrate our entrepreneurs and wealth creators".

One of the great excuses of football failure is "we didn't turn up", and that appears to be a large part of the story in Labour's defeat. Liberal moralists see the result as a judgement on our sins, hence trendy-rev Giles Fraser is "Ashamed to belong to a country that has clearly identified itself as insular, self-absorbed and apparently caring so little for the most vulnerable people among us". For Polly Toynbee, the voice of apocalyptic centrism, "The future is dark. In England and Wales the people swung to the right". This is nonsense. The Tory vote share went up by 0.8% UK-wide (1.4% in England), while Labour's share rose by 1.5%, the Scottish collapse masking a 3.6% increase in England. In fact, if you consider the broad "right" to encompass the LibDems as well as the Tories and UKIP, the vote share of the forces of darkness has fallen from 62.2% to 57.4% since the 2010 election. I see little evidence here that we're becoming less caring or more insular.

The truth is that neither of the two main parties did well in attracting the swing-voters of electoral lore. The difference between them was that Labour failed to take enough seats directly from the Tories, while the Tories took the lion's share of the LibDem seats, reflecting the former third party's historic representation in better-off rural and suburban areas (the loss of Torbay or Twickenham is hardly a set-back for socialism). For all the pre-election talk about UKIP being a drain on both main parties, the reconfiguration on the right was the net loss of 4.4 million LibDem voters who indirectly broke 3 million for UKIP (i.e. presumably back-filling former Tory voters seduced by Nigel Farage) with the balance split evenly across the Tories and Labour (both up by roughly 0.7 million net). In the event, it appears that the Tories were the party pursuing a 35% strategy, with their success in pushing this up to 36.9% enough to deliver a working majority.

The scale of the SNP's victory in Scotland has led to blather about a "one-party state", but I suspect the higher turnout (71.1% versus 66.1% for the UK as a whole) masks a difference in behaviour rather than unanimity of belief. It looks like Labour's "get out the vote" strategy failed, and did so largely because not enough time had passed since the referendum, which in turn also maintained the momentum of the SNP. In the South, abstention is too often framed as a narcissistic consumption preference (e.g. Russell Brand), even though it is the poor and the young who generally don't vote and their behaviour is often driven by negative rather than positive reasons (insufficient bandwidth, lack of self-esteem, atomisation etc). In the urban centres of the North of England and Scotland, it is clearly a sign of working-class disengagement rather than any counter-culture affectation.

Democracies do not naturally produce one-party states, not just because parties inescapably reflect distinct class interests, but because careerism encourages competition. The question for Scotland is what will happen first: Labour revives or the SNP splits between left and right under the pressure of domestic politics. The problem for Scottish Labour is that a perceived shift to the right by the UK party will inevitably be cast as "Blairite" north of the border, regardless of the personnel or policy specifics, so inhibiting any local revival, though it's worth remembering that Blairism as socioeconomic policy was not unpopular with many Scots before the Iraq War (they're not all Scandi social democrats). The SNP will use both the prospect of independence and opposition to the Cameron government to maintain unity, but "standing up for Scotland" must eventually give way to enacting domestic policies that will divide Scottish opinion.

A prominent theme of the immediate post-election coverage has been the unreliability of the opinion polls, with the grave news that there is going to be an "independent inquiry" (a piece of laughably self-important nonsense by the British Polling Council, an industry booster). I'm not surprised that the polls were out, simply because polls exist to generate and frame debate. They are propaganda tools. The clue is the word "opinion"; we just need to remember that the opinions that drive these surveys are those of the media owners and managers, who pay for the polls, not "the people". The air of polite dislike that you can sometimes sense on the TV between journalists and pollsters reflects a power struggle within the media between different professional groups competing for status. On Thursday, this spiralled into outright contempt, which was at least entertaining.

Survation gave the game away when they admitted they had "chickened-out" of publishing a poll on Wednesday that gave the Tories a 37% to 31% lead because it was "out of line". I suspect the problem with such polls is less systematic bias (the famous "shy Tory" problem) than the gulf between opinion and intention. Most people are polite and don't like to disappoint, so if pressed we'll give an opinion, even if it's a white lie. But that doesn't mean we're going to act on it. I think Leighton Vaughan Williams (impressive moniker) is close to the truth when he says "In this case, it seems a very reasonable hypothesis that rather more of those who declared they were voting Labour failed to actually turn up at the polling station than was the case with declared Conservatives". Bloody shirkers.

To give him his due, the battily earnest Allister Heath did sense something was up earlier in the week when he noted that City betting had shifted towards the Tories. Naturally, he went all Hayekian about it: "Individuals with real, exclusive local information are disproportionately likely to place bets, which means that the ensuing prices tend to be remarkably accurate; like all other markets, political spreadbets are better at creating and marshalling bottom-up knowledge than even the best top-down pollster." This is the classic dichotomy of markets, as interpreters of dispersed knowledge, versus the planned economy of centralised polling. The obvious question is: what is the "bottom-up knowledge" that those placing these bets have privileged access to? It's not like getting a racing tip from a stable-lad, unless you believe that City types have a direct feed into the inner thoughts of the voters of Nuneaton (care of GCHQ, presumably).

The most plausible explanation is that City workers are simply following the wider pattern of betting, because that's what many do for a living. But while professional investors (and bettors) know that what matters is the aggregate opinion of the market, amateurs place excessive weight on their own opinion, believing that they can buck the market when the real money-making trick is to exploit the market's movement (as Rupert Murdoch has shown). Betting on political parties then becomes an expression of confidence, rather than a sober assessment of the likely outcome, however that expression of sentiment can indicate differences in intention. Unlike betting on a horse-race, a bet on a general election result will be influenced by the individual bettor's own action - i.e. the intention to cast a vote. Though small in isolation, an aggregate shift in sentiment can therefore point to a large enough shift in intention to materially affect the outcome.

The other tiresome theme of post-election coverage has been disproportional representation: the difference in the number of votes each party needed to secure a seat (i.e. average votes per seat). This is a statistical artefact that tells us nothing about "fairness", but inevitably gets wheeled out at such times in order to advance the cause of electoral reform (i.e. the cause of centrist stability) and to console the smaller parties. That 3.8 million UKIP voters only produced a single seat is a distraction from the desertion of 4.4 million LibDem voters that produced a Tory majority. The bottom line is that Labour didn't turn up in sufficient numbers in key marginals, while too many LibDems did turn up but voted Conservative and thus negated the loss of Tory supporters to UKIP. While Farage & co will have eroded Labour support in some seats, they were probably no bigger a problem than votes lost to the Greens, and both of these trends would have been swamped had the LibDems switched in greater numbers to Labour. The story of the election is that the LibDems put David Cameron into Number 10. Again.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Machine that goes Ping

Despite the best efforts of Nigel "immigration" Farage, and irrational scaremongering about the Caledonian horde, the dominant theme of the general election campaign has been public spending. Unfortunately, the discussion has focused largely on quantity not quality. From deficit levels through welfare to increases in the tax-free allowance, the assumption is that numbers matters more than what they represent and that context is irrelevant. This gives rise to the paradox of a Conservative party that espouses individualism while advocating one-size-fits-all policies, such as the benefits cap and the spare bedroom tax. Whereas once their argument was means-testing, now they dabble with arbitrary cut-offs: no child benefit for larger families. But Labour are similarly conflicted, too often reducing an argument about values (what is right) to mere accountancy (what we can supposedly "afford"), and still prone to beasting the poor. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of the NHS.

According to The Guardian, we have only "6.8 computerised tomography scanners per million people, which is less than half the OECD average". This rather precious fact was culled from a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit that compared the NHS with other national health systems. Though the report looked at a number of dimensions (employing the "balanced scorecard" paradigm beloved of neoliberal thinktanks), the media coverage focused on resources, particularly staffing and hardware, with the general implication that these are inadequate. This material inadequacy was then linked to insufficient funding (the Guardian article echoed Labour's claim of a prospective £2bn NHS deficit), with the further implication that an increase in expenditure would lead to an improvement in at least some of these ratios.

As summarised by the BBC, "The UK is in the lower half of a league table of 30 nations for health staffing. In 2012, the UK had 2.8 doctors and 8.2 nurses per 10,000 people, compared with averages across the OECD of 3.2 and 8.9, respectively. The EIU argues that the starkest differences are apparent when it comes to physical resources ,with the UK sitting near the bottom of the OECD league table. The UK has just 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people against an OECD average of 4.8. For equipment such as CT and MRI scanners, availability is less than half the average". The problem is that this tells us nothing about the structural factors that influence the ratios (i.e. context), nor anything about the efficiency of capital utilisation (i.e. what these numbers represent).

The EIU report itself has this to say about resources: "Hospital beds, admittedly, are in decline nearly everywhere: many countries have been steadily closing wards and consolidating hospitals. This is partly to reduce inefficiency and fixed overheads, but also reflects the fact that modern medical techniques—such as keyhole surgery—have cut the length of hospital stays." In other words, the lower ratio of beds per capita could indicate a number of positive developments, from more effective preventative care through more efficient resource management. I'm not suggesting that this is necessarily the case (though there is plenty of evidence that the NHS is efficient in managing its resources relative to other health systems), but that trying to assess performance using isolated data like this is foolish.

The biggest structural factor influencing resource ratios is the extent of private enterprise. Though the traditional critique of centrally-managed institutions is that they create waste due to the dispersed knowledge problem, markets typically produce over-capacity. This is partly by design, the aim being to provide headroom for peaks in demand, but also partly the result of market churn: as providers enter and exit the market, some capacity will be temporarily duplicated. In theory, this overhead is offset as better, more efficient providers compete the weaker out of the market, however there are problems when this theory is applied to inelastic public goods. An example is the way that free schools open in areas that aren't short of school places. The same number of pupils is now spread over a larger capital base, so the capital/pupil ratio is higher, but you also have higher running costs because of fixed charges (e.g. building maintenance). In terms of capital allocation efficiency, the situation has got worse.

Similarly, the lower ratios of doctors and nurses could point to greater efficiency, not less. If we invest in preventative care and better social care for the elderly and disabled, we'll end up with fewer hospital beds. Hospital consolidations will also reduce staffing and equipment ratios. Though they often face local opposition, mergers are more likely to occur in a nationally-coordinated system than in a free market where you have to rely on provider exit. In terms of high-tech equipment (the modern equivalent of the "machine that goes ping"), the distribution of this is heavily influenced by commercialisation. Hospitals used by the rich tend to have more kit than they need (over-capacity to avoid waiting times and meet peak demand), while hospitals used by the poor tend to have less. The UK's greater equality of access, relative to the OECD norm, means that the "average" the UK falls short of will include a degree of structural waste that we have avoided.

Tellingly, the media coverage of the EIU report ignored the section on staff costs. This was because the NHS pays pretty low wages, relative to its international peers, with one notable exception: "Although figures are scarce, OECD data for 2011 suggested that self-employed GPs in the UK are the highest-paid in the OECD, earning 3.6 times the average wage. This includes most family doctors. The figures for salaried GPs (which may be employed by a GP practice) and hospital doctors are far more modest ... To solve the growing problems in A&E, for example, there needs to be better access to out-of-hours care elsewhere. Nevertheless, asking GPs to take on extra responsibilities fits poorly with efforts to restrain their wages." The significance of this is that GPs represent the largest (and longest-established) incursion of private business into the NHS.

The EIU report adds to a growing body of international health system comparisons, such as the US-based Commonwealth Fund (their latest ranking puts the NHS well out in front). Though there are variations in the way that rankings are arrived at, the broad consensus is that the NHS is the most cost efficient (because it is a nationwide system with minimal charging) and equitable (high levels of access and lower levels of inequality of treatment) but has limitations in terms of overall patient outcomes, though this last is more broadly the product of public health policy (i.e. including factors such as diet, poverty, housing, alcohol consumption etc).

In short, the challenge for the NHS is one of management (the efficient allocation of resources), not just an issue of more money to boost resource ratios, though I'm sure a few more computerised tomography scanners per million people would not come amiss, particularly if they go "ping". This raises difficult questions for those tired of "constant top-down reform", but it also highlights a further risk associated with privatisation and outsourcing, namely the fragmentation of strategy and the capacity inefficiencies inherent in markets.

Monday, 4 May 2015

She's Lost Control

As the UK general election campaign wends its weary way to the inevitable, squalid conclusion of a hung parliament, I have been diverted by two recent foreign films that seem to capture the global sense of defeat and frustration that mark our age. Despite that less than cheerful recommendation, both are a hoot. While Avengers: Age of Ultron objectifies our terror of technology and disappointment with the neoliberal state (aka Tony Stark), Force Majeure and Wild Tales focus on matters closer to home: bourgeois hypocrisy and the joys of revenge. The first takes a Lockean view of the world, in which property relations substitute for emotional engagement, while the latter is relentlessly Hobbesian, homo homini lupus est, but at least carries a small torch for honesty.

Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure is all about systems of control, from the nuclear family engaged in emotional blackmail to the manipulation of the natural world. It is set in an Alpine resort that might as easily be on Hoth as on Earth, where sinister-looking technology is used to create controlled avalanches. The Alpine retreat has served as a stagey microcosm of bourgeois society from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain onwards, but it also stands as a rather laboured metaphor for emotional frigidity and social isolation (even in that modern classic, Dumb and Dumber). The film is a series of vignettes of control mediated by property: the snowploughs at night, the clanking ski-lifts, even a remote-controlled toy drone. The recurrent bathroom rituals are exercises in self-control centred on electric tootbrushes, while the social gatherings, all superficial bonhomie and good taste in wine, are struggles for control of the narrative.


The film quickly sets the scene and then introduces the moment of crisis: a family of smug Swedes on a restaurant terrace take fright at an approaching mini-avalanche. Tomas, the father, reveals his true colours by grabbing his smartphone and fleeing, leaving Ebba, the mother, to protect their son and daughter under the table. The event is trivial - just a shower of powdered snow that passes in a couple of minutes - but the long aftermath proves corrosive as Tomas seeks to excuse his behaviour as Ebba's misunderstanding in the confusion of the moment. This is a power struggle, not just between husband and wife, but between the husband's self-image (hard-working provider and protector) and his true nature. His negotiations and evasions are finally undermined by the video-footage on his own smartphone.

Tomas is a middle-class professional for whom masculinity is about charming manipulation, from the passive-aggressive treatment of his wife to his ability to turn on the man-tears. He doesn't get angry so much as peeved. When he is manipulated - a scene in which a girl mistakenly passes on a compliment and then admits her error is both excrutiating and hilarious - he is shown to be cluelessly vulnerable. This is an ancient trope in which traditional, manly virtues (loyalty, self-sacrifice, self-possession) have been undermined by soft living. The Alpine setting offers a stock contrast: the natural sublime against the man-made, civilisation wilting in the face of the wild, the need to prove oneself in a hostile environment (Ken Russell's Women in Love, with Oliver Reed expiring melodramatically in the snow, came to mind).

Much of the fun of the film comes from Ostlund ridiculing this trope in a carefully curated and commercialised corner of the Alps. In the depths of his self-pity, Tomas is overwhelmed by a boisterous stag party reduced to testosterone howling. The hotel is reminiscent of an ocean liner: a Titanic trapped in a sea of ice, with the servant class occasionally intruding to the frustration of Tomas and Ebba who try to conduct their rows in the corridor outside their room to spare the kids. The music hints at dread and foreboding, which makes the actual disaster - the loss of face by a middle-aged solipsist - all the more amusing. To make sure we get the point, Ostlund repeats the bathos with Tomas's mate Mats, a middle-aged man-child who thinks that possession of a hipster beard and a young girlfriend is enough to convince the world of his worth.

Tomas finally recovers his self-esteem when he saves Ebba on the last day of their holiday, though it looks like a setup on her part: she goes missing in the mist, calls for help and is carried back in his arms, without skies and without any visible injury. I found myself thinking of Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, in which the "ambisexual" inhabitants of a snow-covered planet oscillate between their two genders. Ebba has previously flirted with the idea of having an affair, perhaps more as an act of autonomy than revenge, but decides to save her marriage instead, if only for the kids (the emotional blackmail never ends). Tomas's indulgence of her fear in the poorly-driven coach that takes them away from the resort re-establishes their middle-class bond - safety first, don't take chances - but also allows them to share in their defeat. His decision to smoke a cigarette, as they walk down the mountain having abandoned the bus, suggests a loosening of their hitherto tight control. Whether this points to a more relaxed and honest relationship, or just another form of self-indulgence, is left open.


Damian Szifron's Wild Tales is a portmanteau of revenge and surrender set in Argentina. It opens with a plane crash, engineered by one of the cabin crew who has arranged for almost everyone who ever did him harm to be on the flight. The punchline is that the plane is hurtling towards his parents' house as they sit by their pool. We then move to a mini-epic of road rage, pitting a middle-class executive in an Audi against a working-class truck driver, that quickly spirals into mutually-assured destruction. In the third tale, a young woman is tempted to take revenge by poisoning her family's tormentor in the restaurant where she works, but when she balks, as she realises the act will harm the innocent as well, her workmate takes over and dispatches the tormentor with a knife. The fourth tale is the most overtly political, as a demolition expert takes revenge on the parasitical state, represented by a ruthless car-pound, after his car has been towed and he has had to pay through the nose, triggering a sequence in which he loses his job and marriage. He puts explosives in his car, let's them tow it again, and watches in satisfaction as the pound is blown up.

The penultimate tale sees a rich family bribe a servant to take the rap for their son's hit-and-run killing of a pregnant woman. The price escalates, as first the family lawyer and the investigating prosecutor demand their cut and then the servant ups his fee, tempting the father to cancel the arrangement and let his son face the music. In the end, after his wife's pleas and his own affronted haggling, the contract is sealed, but as the servant is led away in cuffs, the husband of the victim appears bent on deadly revenge. The final tale is of a wedding reception during which the bride suddenly realises that her husband is having an affair with one of the guests. She flees to a rooftop terrace where she screws one of the hotel staff and is found in the act by her husband. She says she will do as she pleases in future and threatens to financially ruin him if he tries to divorce her. Returning to the party, she semi-accidentally hurls the other woman into a mirror. Amid the mayhem, and fortified by the wedding cake, the husband and wife decide that the arrangement is not so bad after all and start to make love on a table as the guests depart.

There are parallels with Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, not just in the premise of the plane crash episode, but in the later plot significance of hit-and-run killings, poisoning and miscarriages of justice. But while Christie was concerned with moral failings and the inescapability of guilt in a world built on property (inheritances figure prominently as motives), Szifron is more concerned with the social contagion of anger and the inadequacy of money as a social currency (cakes come out far better). The tales themselves are ancient, which means amusing nods to the canon. For example, the road rage incident echoes modern existential films such as Duel and The Hitcher but thereby harks back to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For all their gritty realism, these are also fairy-tales, most obviously the story of "Dynamite" who may end up in prison but is feted as a popular hero (no one was injured in the explosion and the towing company's corruption has been revealed) and is then reconciled with his wife and kids.

The last tale, with its antagonistic but ultimately pragmatic couple, could have been entitled All's Well That Ends Well, a postscript that might even be applied to Force Majeure. Some critics of Wild Tales saw this as a cop-out, but I think it shows a humane understanding of the need to live in the world. Similarly, Tomas and Ebba may be shallow and self-obsessed, but at least they insist on making their own way down from the rarefied heights of their Alpine retreat to the messy world below, another resonant parallel with The Magic Mountain. In the end, it is the gender politics of both films that stick in the memory. The men are trapped in their roles and their attempts to live up to them result in a reversion to childhood fantasy: bare-faced lying, pumped-up violence, the magic wand of money. The women are more flexible, but that is both a strength and a weakness as they bounce between compromise and confrontation. I need hardly make the political parallels explicit.