Friday, 5 May 2017


The economist Simon Wren-Lewis reckons that this is a stage-managed, policy-free general election and compares the UK unfavourably with France, though he curiously illustrated his point by referring to the stage-managed mini-drama that saw Le Pen and Macron respectively "whipping up" and "calming" voters at a factory gate last week. But he has a point. The French Presidential election seems more genuine and vital, both in its presentation of ideas - the competing sirens of market and nation - and in the visceral engagement of the candidates. Much of the liberal media has been exercised by the possibility that some French leftist voters will abstain in the second round of the election, despite the actual evidence that the majority will tactically back Macron (Hamon has already explicitly endorsed him and Melenchon has implicitly done likewise). Some have predictably insisted that a vote denied to Macron is the equivalent of a vote for Le Pen. Strangely, few liberals have applied the same logic to the UK and suggested that a vote denied to Corbyn is the same as a vote for May.

You might counter that ours is not a presidential system, but that would be naïve. Despite our votes being cast for MPs, we have been tending towards a de facto presidential system since the early 20th century. This has become more pronounced over time, partly as a result of the Conservative Party's weakness for leader-cults, from Churchill to Thatcher, and partly because of the framing of the media, which values personality over policy. New Labour adopted this style wholesale in the 90s, which fuelled both Tony Blair's messianic fervour and Gordon Brown's paranoia. An important factor in Jeremy Corbyn's election as leader was a conscious rejection of this approach, but likewise an important factor in the media's hostility is Labour's lack of media cooperation (despite the heroic efforts of Jess Philips). The Tories' current strategy is a logical extension of these tendencies. The contrived photo-ops and relentless mantra of "strong and stable" are intended to construct a mythical Theresa May to compensate for her absence of personality. The framing of Brexit as an issue of sovereignty ("Brussels interference") allows debate on trade-offs and priorities to be avoided. In contrast, the routine questioning of Labour's legitimacy and competence has an almost quaint air to it.

Liberals tend to fetishise the electoral process, imagining that a technocratic fix could somehow improve the quality of politics, hence the obsession with proportional representation and even the idea of compulsory voting. This attitude increasingly extends to the epiphenomena of the election campaign, such as the televised leaders' debate. May's decision to avoid this shouldn't have come as a surprise. Not only is she visibly uncomfortable in such settings, but her strategy is to present herself as a national figurehead above the fray: a Daily Mail-friendly de Gaulle. In the event, liberals have been more scathing about Corbyn's decision to refuse participation unless May is present, suggesting that he is missing an open goal. This is disingenuous. Without May, the debate would turn on the other parties' desire to promote themselves at Labour's expense. Instead of debating the Tories' record, it would become simply a critique of Labour generally and its leader in particular. Unsurprisingly, the same people advocating a "progressive alliance" were prominent among those criticising Corbyn.

The desire of TV companies to establish a leaders' debate as a newly-minted tradition of democracy, like election night specials and swingometers, is not just transparent self-interest. It also reflects a conscious aping of US electoral practices and thus reinforces the evolution of the role of the Prime Minister as a quasi-president. Given the ample evidence from both the US TV debates last year and the Macron/Le Pen face-off earlier this week, you might have expected liberals to have second thoughts about the value of a contest in which policy is so easily marginalised by invective and smears ("you'd be in jail", you have an offshore bank account etc), but their weakness for "tone" is too great, leading the likes of Wren-Lewis to both critique the press for its obsession with personality and unimportant gaffes (e.g. Diane Abbott) while decrying the unwillingness of party leaders to engage in a literally stage-managed debate. Meanwhile, Corbyn's desire for face-time with "ordinary" voters is presented as self-indulgent when not Quixotic.

The Tories' avoidance of debate and the presentation of the election in terms of national interest have together increased the salience of British newspapers. While they may be facing a secular decline due to technology, the tabloids in particular are in rude political health, the near-death experience of Leveson now a distant memory. The suspension of Kelvin MacKenzie over the Ross Barkley incident should not be mistaken for a sign of weakness or moderation, any more than the man's crack about an immigrant knifing Corbyn was a gaffe. That was very obviously a deliberate plant, via an obligingly credulous New York Times, intended to indicate that both MacKenzie and Murdoch are unrepentant. While some liberals hope that an increased majority will embolden Theresa May to moderate Brexit, it's pretty clear that the rightwing press believes it can raise a reactionary mob at a moment's notice to prevent any back-sliding and it will have no compunction about undermining May in the same way it did Major and Cameron. What the non-deportable cat and the "go home" vans told us is that May as Home Secretary was addicted to the praise of the tabloids. It is hard to believe she has changed as Prime Minister.

Faced with the prospect of a Tory landslide and a hard Brexit, many liberals have taken to seeking a demographic explanation for the rightwing turn. The claim that "Britain is ageing, and the older it gets, the further to the right it’s shifting" is typical of the genre. Most people have fairly static views about the world, which are normally fully-formed by their early-20s. While a minority are open to change, the majority carry their beliefs and prejudices through life, even if they will modify the expression of them to suit contemporary norms (the one notable characteristic of the recently demobbed Prince Philip is that privilege allowed him to air the prejudices of a dim posho schooled in the 1930s without consequence). In contrast, society changes over time, largely because the minority who embrace the new tend to have a disproportionate influence over both public policy and the value-formation of younger cohorts. In terms of attitudes, society is dragged forward by "opinion-formers" and progress is reinforced by the young seeking to distinguish themselves from their elders.

Inevitably, any political party that can be broadly defined as progressive will exhibit a tension between the vanguard (party members) and the mass (the electorate), and that tension will roughly correlate with age, hence progressive parties do better among younger cohorts. Age is much less of an issue within the party because it is disproportionately made of up of self-conscious progressives. Contrary to the simplistic narrative, Corbyn's election as leader of Labour owed as much to energised pensioners as it did to social media-activated twenty-somethings. Much of the supposed cleavage between metropolitan Labour and its Northern heartlands is simply the reframing of this naturally-occurring and persistent tension as a specific disjuncture. The liberal turn to demography can be thought of as an interpretation that emphasises stock over flow: because oldies vote Tory, more oldies means more Tories. Behind this lies a pessimism about the intractability of prejudices, which is a way that liberals can avoid admitting the failure of their arguments to change minds. We saw this in the bitter denigration of white, working-class voters by Hillary Clinton's supporters in the US, and can see it right now in the dismissal of French leftists, unconvinced by Macron, as enablers of the far-right.

In fact, the current electoral shifts are better explained by a model of flow in which voters move between parties, and also between voting and non-voting. Though the full results aren't in yet, it's pretty clear from the local council elections that UKIP are on the verge of either disbanding or reverting to a BNP-like rump, while the long-heralded Liberal Democrat resurgence looks like being a damp squib. In other words, both reactionary and small-c conservative voters have decisively shifted to the Tories. Though Labour has lost seats and councils, this appears to be down to abstention as much as voters switching, emphasising that the party's prospects in June will largely depend on maximising turnout among its core supporters (its stock). While this simply means limiting the scale of a probable defeat, it also preserves Labour as the only viable opposition. Ominously, for Theresa May there will be every incentive to keep the anti-Brussels rage burning until 2022, as that will maximise her electoral stock. Against this, even a revived New Labour would be ineffective, suggesting that both wings of the party must hope for a government balls-up that would drive Tory voters into abstention or minor party protest. Unity at last.


  1. Ben Philliskirk5 May 2017 at 18:47

    "Ominously, for Theresa May there will be every incentive to keep the anti-Brussels rage burning until 2022, as that will maximise her electoral stock."

    Exactly right. I expect we'll be hearing rather a lot about Gibraltar over the next ten years, and the Tories will have a team devoted to finding ways to establish a constant cold war with the EU. In the same way that a 'them and us' attitude vis-à-vis the French helped to cement British national identity in the 18th and early 19th centuries, so the Tories will be hoping that they can use the EU to hold together their new national-conservative bloc.

    It's been disturbing just how easy their task has been so far.

  2. gastro george5 May 2017 at 20:04

    We are, of course, at peak May, and she has managed to successfully benefit from Brexit, UKIP meltdown and the failure of the Lib Dem resurgence. So far. What has also been remarkable thus far is the stickiness of both liberal Tory MPs and liberal-inclined Tory voters in the face of what is essentially a takeover of the Tory party by UKIP, at least in terms of policies. Will this be maintained over time? What happens when Brexit shit hits the fan, and she, and her supporters, find that there is no cake?

    1. I don't think UKIP have taken over the Conservative party, though it is an amusing line, rather the Tories have simply absorbed UKIP's agenda. As the party that places pragmatics over principle, this is simply the modus operandi of the Conservatives.

      This doesn't mean that they are unthinking. You'll note that they have gone big on sovereignty, leaving UKIP the Islamophobic crumbs, while ensuring enough nods and winks to reassure voters on immigration (May must thank her stars now for those "go home" vans, which were utterly daft but gained her valuable credit).

      Tory remainers are hoping that this is all for show and that she will moderate her stance after June, while the ex-Kippers are obviously hoping she means it. Strategic ambiguity is necessary to keep both wings on side, hence the avoidance of debate or explication and the focus on those aspects of Brexit that can command general support, such as insulting the EU Commission.

      Whether they can construct a viable politics on this basis going forward, as Ben suggests, is moot. Once we're out of it, the EU does not present a convincing enemy. As the right elsewhere in Europe has found, for example in Poland and Hungary, you need to be a member to have the luxury of making Brussels an antagonist.

  3. gastro george6 May 2017 at 11:01

    Re Tories/UKIP I was trying, albeit a bit clumsily, to say the same thing.

    And yes, May has made a lot of keeping her negotiating position as secret as possible because negotiations, but in reality it's been as much to avoid saying too much to the coalition of her supporters, for fear of disappointing them. Better for her to try to sell a completed deal rather than have them pouring over the detail. And that conforms to her political style in any case.

  4. gastro george6 May 2017 at 11:12

    Re the generational divide, there has been considerable talk about how the old have benefited from the post-war settlement - stable jobs, good pensions, etc. - but have somehow ended up convincing themselves that this good fortune has been down to their own Swabian attributes rather than a product of the system that they have lived under. And how the result is that they are now complacent about destroying that system.

    On a first glance, that might seem to oppose your thesis about political views not changing as you get older. But I think not. I suspect that they have always held these views (Exhibit 1: my parents, but that's a longer story). Quite often you hear people comment: "the young were so radical in the 60s/70s, what became of that, did they just get older?". But that, IMHO, vastly underestimates the "normality" of much of the population in those years.

    1. Indeed. The "Swinging 60s" was the product of only a couple of thousand people in London, aka the "faces" and "trend-setters". The change in cultural norms they championed didn't reach most parts of the country until the mid-70s, which is why Abigail's Party was always a better reflection of social history than Blow Up.

      What was determinative of broader social attitudes in the postwar years was full employment, which led to an assumption that anyone could get a job if they wanted one, and rapidly rising living standards (compare 1950 vs 1980 with 1980 vs 2010), which meant "getting on" overtook the "surviving" attitude of those raised in the 30s. The result is that many people who came of age in the 60s are still sceptical about involuntary unemployment and consider rising inequality to be just desserts.

      While the 60s posed radical, the real revolution was the gradual substitution of individual fulfilment for collective progress. This was the lasting normative shift that heralded both the unrepentant selfishness of Thatcherism and the moderated selfishness of New Labour.

    2. gastro george6 May 2017 at 14:24

      Yes, the hippy era was always as much about personal liberation as collective - and the former was always going to be accommodated because of the increase in spending power that went with it.

      I think one unifying factor here is that a lot of older people are stuck in the their experience of that era. So they don't see that there has been any change from the post-war settlement. They did very well in the 60s/70s so there's no reason why anybody could do the same now *if they really tried*. Which goes along with the attitude to involuntary employment.

      Stating that, I remember chatting in the pub, it must have been late 70s or early 80s and being really shocked when a person I thought was sound came out with "there are plenty of jobs available if the unemployed went out to look for them". But I guess that's also an example of how undifferent those times were.

  5. Herbie Destroys the Environment7 May 2017 at 17:32

    The Lib Dems incidentally are clearly, very clearly being groomed by the mainstream media, particularly the BBC and ITV news to become the official opposition to the Tory/UKIP alliance (other wise called the Tory party).

    The disappointment of the BBC and the media at the Lib Dems poor showing in the election was palpable.

    The BBC and the media are clearly, very clearly trying to destroy the Labour party.

    The worrying thing is that the media more often than not tends to get what it wants in the end.

    On the realities of politics, the avergae Tory voter will vote Tory no matter if they supported Brexit or not, the average UKIP'er is a far right Tory and will vote for a Tory party that took us out of the EU. However they will be looking for hard Brexit and the usual Tory trick of taking their base as idiots will not work in the case of Brexit because the very people who keep the base idiotic, i.e. the media, will not let Brexit lite go by without comment. So it will be interesting to see how the Tory establishment manage that!

    In working class areas Lib Dem supporters are Tories in denial and I suspect in posher areas Lib Dem supporters are Labour supporters in denial.

    We probably have around 30% of the vote, they have 70%. Which to be honest is a lot better than I had ever imagined! The very very good thing about Corbyn is that all those fucking Tories have scurried back to their natural home. Good riddance I say!

    With Corbyn in charge I am perfectly contented with opposition. I would much prefer that than having a Blairite on power.

    1. It's no secret that the BBC (despite press claims to the contrary) is ideologically right of centre. It is the state broadcaster, after all. It will seek to position itself between two factions (not parties per se) that represent the centre and the centre-right, to give a semblance of contest. I don't think it's trying to destroy Labour so much as bolster the PLP right for what it imagines is an inevitable anti-Corbyn coup after June.

      What it doesn't want is an apparent vacuum in the centre of politics, largely because UK electoral mechanics prevent this being easily filled (compare and contrast with France right now), as was conclusively proved by the SDP. What it wants is to maintain the idea of a popular centre until such time as both Labour and the Tories return to it. Farron & co are just a way of preserving that space in discourse.

      What the BBC believes is that May will tack to the centre once she has a solid majority and can face down the nutters (the Kuenssberg theory), while Labour will tack to the centre once it has dumped Corbyn (the Davis theory). I don't think either is a given. May's control-freakery and narrow-mindedness means she will tend to drift right under pressure from the tabloids and ex-Kippers.

      Corbyn will stand down later this year, but presumably wants to hang on till the McDonnell amendment is passed at conference. The PLP right would be advised to compromise on this, but I'm not sure they have the good sense to do so, in which case Corbyn might try and hang on. What most CLP members seem to want is a young, photogenic and competent leader (a Macron) but with social democratic policies (somewhere between Hamon and Melenchon). In other words, a 60s vintage Tony Benn.

    2. gastro george7 May 2017 at 21:17

      "What most CLP members seem to want is a young, photogenic and competent leader (a Macron) but with social democratic policies (somewhere between Hamon and Melenchon)."

      Not an unreasonable demand, and one the PLP has studiously ignored.

    3. I'm not sure they have ignored it. Clive Lewis increasingly gives the impression of a man who has been approached by various worthies wanting "a chat about your future". The obvious play is for the right to co-opt an ambitious soft-lefty who could be persuaded to tack to the centre. I believe it's called doing a Kinnock.

    4. gastro george8 May 2017 at 13:45

      I think that Lewis has already talked about this kind of thing happening.

  6. Herbie Destroys the Environment8 May 2017 at 20:30

    I personally would call that a totally unreasonable demand and one that utterly capitulates to personality over policy and capitulates to the narrative of the right.

    The BBC obviously wants a centre party, if by centre we mean Thatcherite economics and social liberalism, which in this day and age I guess passes for the centre. But the BBC thinks given the Labour membership we better back another pony.

    Funnily enough the BBC have not only not ditched that hideous throwback to the 19th century and Brexiter, they have positively projected her as the greatest Briton since Boudicca! The strongest leader since Winston Churchill! Strange how this creature of the hard right is embraced by the centre loving BBC! The idea that May will go back to the centre is a bit laughable given she is the chief Brexit negotiator! The horse has bolted.

    Though to be honest May treats the working class with the same contempt as did Blair. You only have to look at the UK bus service provision, surely the worst in the civilised world, to know with what contempt we are held in.

    I guess getting on the bus is the opposite of aspirational, a lack of ambition. Having 5 cars on the fucking drive is aspirational!

    Sorry needed to get that off my chest!