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Saturday, 29 December 2018

The Progressive Vote

Though it took two goes, Labour's right and centre eventually learnt the lesson of their defeat to Jeremy Corbyn in the battle for the party leadership: they need a mass movement of energised members if they are to marginalise the left. The expulsion of a handful of members on the grounds of antisemitism or bullying isn't going to tip the balance, and a gradual process of disillusionment, reducing the membership to the size it was in the later Blair years, will take as much as a decade to accomplish and presupposes a continual period in frustrated opposition. It is now clear that some on the right and centre of the party see opposition to Brexit, and specifically the call for a second referendum, as a short-cut to their goal of defeating the left, essentially by co-opting the new membership to a "sensible" platform that combines staying in the EU with a programme of redistributive justice and public sector investment (the more fundamental issues of economic power raised by John McDonnell will inevitably be quietly sidelined under this new dispensation). After the failure of Blair 2.0, it's full steam ahead for Kinnock 2.0.

This partly explains the vituperation over Corbyn's relatively anodyne comments on state aid, not to mention the now well-established propaganda that he is really a hardcore Brexiteer, that he is an authoritarian hypocrite ignoring the wishes of party members, and that he is increasingly alienating progressives. The power of this strategy can be seen in the fact that left-leaning remainers are beginning to make arguments that echo these dubious claims, in particular that Labour will lose the votes of the bien pensants and thereby fail to win office. Simon Wren-Lewis sees a warning from 2003: "there have been two major grassroots movements in the last 20 years in the UK that managed to put more than half a million people on the streets of London, and there is a distinct danger that Labour will be on the wrong side of both of them". The purpose of the parallel is to emphasise the strength of feeling rather than the likely outcome (in case you'd forgotten, while Labour lost seats in the 2005 general election, it still won a majority despite the negative impact of its prosecution of the invasion of Iraq).


Wren-Lewis is much taken with this strength of feeling, to the point where he seeks to explain the remainer cause in terms of its righteous fury: "Where does this passion and energy come from? It is obviously a big issue, but would the kind of Brexit favoured by Corbyn and some Labour and Tory MPs (close to BINO) really be such a big deal compared to staying in the EU? On an emotional level I think there are three reasons why it would be. First and foremost is the question of identity. Many people in the UK regard themselves as also European, and any form of Brexit is clearly a way of cutting the UK off from the rest of Europe. Second, I think there is a strong feeling that leaving the EU represents the triumph of ideological over rational argument. Once you let a campaign of the right won by illegal means triumph, you open the doors to more of the same. A third factor is empathy for the position of European migrants in the UK, who are often friends, neighbours or colleagues".

The "question of identity" isn't really a question but a presumption, and one that trivialises actual conflicts of identity in places such Northern Ireland. For all the talk of a divided nation and ruined Christmas dinners, Britons are not being obliged to choose an identity in an environment where the consequences can be fatal. Yes, an MP was assassinated in 2016, but the idea that people are taking their lives in their hands when they mention Brexit in an unfamiliar pub is ridiculous. Regarding yourself as European is an affinity, like being a liberal, rather than a socially-imposed identity, like being brought up as a Catholic or as a native German-speaker. Citizens of the UK will be no less European outside the EU than the citizens of Norway or Switzerland. While the institutions of the EU may be central to the self-image of a fraction of the upper middle class, they play a purely pragmatic role for most people. I appreciate the convenience of using a fast-track passport queue and knowing I have an EHIC card when I go on holiday, but my heart doesn't swell with pride when I see the EU flag, or any flag for that matter. Ironically, Wren-Lewis's claim presupposes what in any other context we would identify as "patriotism", but which for obvious reasons cannot be named as such.

The idea that the EU is non-ideological, that it embodies "rational argument" and implicitly the Enlightenment, is itself pure ideology. It is a particularly odd claim to make when Wren-Lewis has been highly critical of the irrationalism that underlay both the design of the euro and the EU's wider turn to austerity after 2008, the one creating the conditions for a banking crisis and the other recasting that crisis as a problem of unsustainable public debt. While the 2016 EU referendum was hardly an advertisement for rationality in political debate, it clearly wasn't "won" by illegal means, unless you genuinely believe that breaches of spending rules swung the votes of a million people. The greater contribution to the prejudice and ignorance that influenced the outcome must surely be attributed to the decades-long bias against understanding of the media, including the failure of the BBC's ridiculous attempts at "balance", a topic on which Wren-Lewis has again been trenchant in the past. Given the long history of the media's automatic support for the right, it is hyperbole to suggest that Brexit will inevitably lead to more "illegal triumphs", as if the 2016 vote were a watershed of the order of the Reichstag Fire Decree.


Wren-Lewis's last point - empathy for EU migrants - probably counts a lot for a small number of people with direct personal involvement or a strong sense of ethical obligation, but it isn't a priority for most voters for whom empathy with Latvians is no more salient than empathy with Laotians. This doesn't make them xenophobic or callous, it merely reflects their personal circumstances and their mental ranking of the factors that will determine their vote. Many people are unhappy with the anticipated future treatment of EU migrants, just as they are unhappy with the proliferation of foodbanks, but it doesn't follow that either would cause them to ignore all other issues when it comes to a general election. To claim that empathy with migrants is a major motive is to make the classic error of assuming that what matters to activists is necessarily representative of broader social movements, ironically a criticism routinely levelled at the left. Together with the emphasis on EU patriotism, it also suggests that remainers are driven more by emotion than rational calculation, which makes Wren-Lewis's case self-contradictory.

While Simon has a starry-eyed view of what motivates remainers, elevating attractive principle over pragmatism, Chris Bertram has a more cynical view both of the Labour leadership's calculations and the likely response of remain voters. In his reading, Corbyn & co imagine they can triangulate to secure the votes of both the pro-social, leave-supporting working class and the pro-redistribution, remain-supporting middle class. But Bertram fears that the bad feeling of Brexit will lead those middle class voters to desert Corbyn's Labour, fatally undermining its purpose. As he puts it: "A redistributionist politics needs the support of millions of middle-class 'liberal' Remain voters to succeed". This is a powerful argument because that statement is objectively true - Labour can't win without middle-class votes - but also because it reflects a persistent antipathy within Labour's electoral coalition. As Bertram says of his own feelings: "I confess that I myself have had some ugly thoughts as a result of the Brexit experience: why should I pay taxes to bail out a bunch of racist idiots in Sunderland or Stoke? What do I care if some elderly xenophobe can’t find a nurse or a doctor because too few EU nationals have stayed to look after the people who voted to take their rights away?"

But where Bertram goes wrong is first in assuming that the progressive middle class is composed of remain die-hards, and second in assuming that its contempt for the working class is a novelty spawned by Brexit. That first assumption ignores that many progressive middle class voters will have been luke-warm remainers, while the second leads him to attribute class contempt to the malign work of the Blue Labour/ethnic self-interest crowd: "A staple of Blue Labour/Goodhartian thought is that immigration and increasing ethnic diversity has made it hard to sustain social trust and that this risks undermining support for welfare-state institutions. ... But by fighting a culture-war against immigration and the 'liberal elite' in order to secure Brexit, those Blue Labour types have succeeded in destroying the illusion of an inclusive national community. They have produced two hostile camps, ranged against one another, who will be unwilling to make the payments those very leftists think are necessary". This interpretation generously credits the likes of Maurice Glasman and David Goodhart with greater influence over the decay of social capital than forty years of neoliberalism. It also misunderstands the self-interest of fiscal policy. I don't pay tax to bail out racist idiots, nor do I support the NHS because I love elderly xenophobes. I do it because a society dedicated to everyman-for-himself would be harsher for me as much as for others.


The shared premise of Wren-Lewis and Bertram is that support for remaining in the EU is so fundamental to the identity of progressive middle class voters that a large number of them will withdraw their support from Labour unless it commits (at a minimum) to a second referendum with remain on the ballot. Wren-Lewis's argument is essentially emotional and thus a public shaming: being pro-remain is a litmus test for how progressive you are. Bertram's argument is essentially transactional and thus a threat: if you don't support remain you can forget about any kind of redistributive justice. Both are manipulative, both assume that there is nothing creditable in Labour's attempts to bridge the Brexit divide, and both rest on the presumption that the party leadership is guilty of bad faith. More fundamentally, both assume a largely homogenous progressive middle class straight out of a Private Eye parody. The reality is that pro-European rationalists, and even soi-disant "progressives", are as likely to vote Conservative as Labour. It's also likely that the number of progressives who will boycott Labour in the next election over Brexit is going to be no greater than the number who always manage to find a good reason to vote Liberal Democrat or Green.

One interesting dimension of this argument is the idea that Brexit might prove an existential crisis for the Labour Party, which ironically echoes those Blue Labour types that Bertram is rightly dismissive of. Implicit in Wren-Lewis's argument is the spectre of middle class voter disillusion keeping Labour out of power for many years, perhaps for good. In contrast, Bertram is bluntly explicit: "I think the Tories (or maybe right-wing anti-redistributionist politics more generally) will do rather well out of Brexit – if it goes ahead – and it will be the end of Labour". I think both claims are dubious: cutting off your nose to spite your face on the one hand, and imagining that the Tories will escape unscathed on the other. What neither seem willing to entertain are the twin thoughts that Brexit is already a marginal issue for many voters and that it is being used to pursue an anti-left strategy by centrists within the Labour Party. In other words, the usual politics continues beyond the Brexit bubble. In denying this reality, left-leaning remainers are as guilty of delusion as any Brexiteer burbling about Singapore or advantageous trade deals with the USA.

31 comments:

  1. I think you've nailed this. Wren Lewis' thinking in particular is clouded by emotion. He even claims that he left Corbyn's council of economic advisors over this issue, leaving Anne Petifor (also a remainer) on her own. But that cannot really have been the reason, given the referendum was yet to occur. Wren Lewis is an out and out New-Keynesian, and the period of his greatest influence was under New Labour. For him Brexit is proxy for a much wider set of issues on the unwelcome repoliticisation of economics.

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  2. Why you so pessimistic? You write as if r > g is inevitable, we can do nothing to counter the slide to pre-war

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    1. Doesn't the rate of return on actual physical capital generally equal growth over the long term? Rising inequality nowadays is due to increasing dominance of economic rent (both on valuable urban locations and on intellectual property).

      In the postwar era, inequality fell primarily due to government policies restricting private collection of land rent: rent controls, limits on mortgage lending, domestic rates and (before 1964) Schedule A taxation and the building of council housing on land purchased compulsorily at agricultural prices.

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    2. No -- what made you think it was?

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    3. Let me ask another way, how do you get a return on this capital and what determines the rate of this return?

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  3. Aren't the hardcore remainers motivated by a desire to be the anti-UKIP, thinking that a threat to split the progressive vote can force Corbyn to concede a referendum to stop Brexit (if not a unilateral cancellation of Brexit), just as UKIP's threat to split the rightwing vote forced Cameron to concede a referendum to enable Brexit?

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    1. But they're not threatening to split the vote, despite the regular calls for a new centre party or the revival of the LibDems. While some high-profile remainers clearly hate Labour and would be happy to see it marginalised, most of them will support the party in an election. That's my essential point: Labour isn't going to lose the progressive vote.

      Also, bear in mind that while UKIP peeled off Tory Party members & voters, their core was made up of homeless reactionaries who had been alienated in the early-90s. The core of the remain camp are institutionally invested in the Labour Party in a way that Farage & co weren't.

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    2. Why aren't the Lib Dems doing much better in affluent parts of southern England which voted Remain and where the Lib Dems are already the strongest anti-Tory force?

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    3. Corporal Begob, reporting from Blue Dorset. My feeling, from many guarded Brexit conversations with strangers, is that the Conservatives will suffer a significant degree of desertion once the treaties "no longer apply" on 30 March.

      Ordinary people, who have daily interactions with EU immigrants yet who jokingly complain about foreigners, do recognise the typical Tory as an out-an-out shit to be wiped off the sole of the boot. But only once over the threshold.

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    4. That's a good point. There are clearly plenty of voters who are giving May the benefit of the doubt until March. The idea that the Tories will maintain their current polling levels once the focus moves back to wages & housing, and thus territory of Labour's choosing, strikes me as naive.

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  4. For most the EU is part of the status quo. Any small c conservative in Labour or the Tories is going to want to remain. For OAP conservatives the EU was never the status quo rather it was the British Empire of their youth and their parents generation for them a leave vote was to somehow to restore the status quo.

    Wren-Lewis is a senior academic. This group has done well out of the EU. If you want to get on as an academic you have to publish in english language journals many controlled by Wren-Lewis types. UK higher education and research is open to EU nationals. The UK gets more out of the EU research budgets than it puts in. If you are a younger UK born academic you may face more competition from EU nationals for jobs in the UK, but you are working in an expanded sector thanks in part to the EU and you don't know no different. Wren-Lewis would probably not have had to face competition from non UK nationals for any of his early career jobs. For Wren-Lewis and similar noisy types Brexit is personal because his cosy world is being messed up.

    I voted remain (I couldn't face voting the same way as UKIP), but now I couldn't give a monkeys. The most depressing thing about it is all other issues are subordinated to it. Seemingly it's a perfect excuse for the government to do nothing.

    The current Labour policy is correct. Try and engineer a general election out of this and in the meantime stay vague on the Labour form of soft Brexit. If we can get an election don't fight it on Brexit. Fight on food banks the NHS and everything else.

    The main thing for me is not to take it too seriously. The finest standup currently can be seen weekdays after 10pm on BBC news. The most impressive thing about Laura Kuenssberg is she never corpses when delivering her material. It's an acquired taste and it helps to be well tanked up.

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    1. I doubt that nostalgia for the Empire was particularly important, given that even most OAPs either hadn't been born or were children when the Empire was a going concern. I think it was more nostalgia for the nationalistic Old Labour and One Nation Tory governments, with their dirigiste economics and concern with the balance of payments (as well as military might: perhaps the Empire they are really most nostalgic for is the Empire of the Clouds?)

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  6. So progressive vote = what middle class people think. Herein lies the problem, and has always been the problem to my mind.

    The Tory vote is never going to collapse. This is the ultimate in naivety!

    I agree with the conclusions to this, ultimately Brexit will not be far removed from remain everything else being equal. To me Brexit or Remain is a sideshow. I mean from a ‘progressive’ viewpoint what is the EU? A transnational power gaining from economies of scale, standardisation etc (and at what point does something become too big to manage efficiently?)? A power holding back the relative decline of the West in relation to the East (in which case is that really progressive?)?


    I think Corbyn absolutely believes in a united Europe, just not on its current terms (Corbyn seems to believe that socialism can eventually come about via polite conversation between honest and rational actors). I don’t think Corbyn believes in hard Brexit, i.e. WTO terms as this imposes more restraints on his social democratic programme than the EU does. Not sure if Corbyn thinks that standing between the 2 means you can pull one or both closer to where you stand. But I imagine China, the USA and others will have something to say about that.

    Which is why I say the whole thing is a sideshow from a progressives point of view. The solution isn’t to be found in the institutions of the ruling class but by creating a working class movement, which I should emphasize is not a Middle Class movement in any way shape or form! Currently there is no movement to speak of and therefore there isn’t any progressive movement, let alone anything that could be called a progressive vote.

    “This doesn't make them xenophobic or callous,”

    Quite so. However if you look at the general positive response to a caller to a radio show who called for migrants to be blown out of the water (i.e. murder in the first degree) then this is what makes them xenophobic and callous and actually downright criminal! Scratch the surface of enlightenment values and you are left with dead migrants floating in the Thames.

    And this is what Brexit was all about, nothing more and nothing less. So called progressives will tell you that beneath all the surface level racism is actually a mask for economic woes but I claim if you keep digging all you will keep getting is racism.

    Now what we should be very wary of is when the establishment start taking up the cause of anti racism, anti sexism etc etc. This is used by the ruling class in the same way they use child abusers or terrorists, namely to get more power for themselves by building up security and mass surveillance. Like when they carpet bomb dark skinned people they always have some noble cause to fight when increasing their own powers, so increased internet surveillance in the name of fighting misogyny or bullying.

    Interesting on the BBC, that unadulterated propaganda network that I am forced to pay for, there was a montage of those who died in 2018, it was eulogy after eulogy for the great and good, Bush and McCain were described in glowing terms but then it came to Winnie Mandela who was portrayed as a monster! If she had been white and calling for the carpet bombing of Syria she would have been hailed a feminist hero!

    So the next time the BBC talk of internet bullying and misogyny just remember their motives!

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    1. In my estimation there were two main types of Leave voters, both nostalgic in different ways: "Make Britain White Again" and "Make Britain Industrial Again". The former was more dominant among southerners and Tory voters, while the latter was more dominant in the Labour heartlands of the north and the midlands.

      Strong support for Brexit is more and more about racism, as the latter group (driven by despair over the deindustrialization of Britain under Thatcher and Blair: this particularly affects those who cannot adapt to the new economy because they either live in the wrong places or have a low IQ) are realizing that they were conned. This is why the biggest recent swings towards Remain have been in the Labour heartlands.

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    2. I am from the North and have lived in Northern working class communities all my life and all I can say is that Brexit appears to me as being one of protecting the culture from the head bangers etc.

      You can read the Mail or the Sun in the morning and almost guarantee someone will repeat it before lunch! So to me it is a thoroughly racist cause in its actual appearance.

      I also don't see much appetite in the North for people to return to the mines. It isn't on everyone's lips in the same way immigration is.

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    4. I'm guessing that "head bangers" is a reference to Muslim prayer, not a reference to fans of heavy metal music?

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    5. Head bangers is one of the terms used by racists round these parts to describe people who have slightly darker skin and different customs. Other terms are raghead (see Prince harry), Sand N**!ers and many more.

      As you mentioned heavy metal music, I fucking hate heavy metal music and so do many others but that doesn't quite manifest itself into wishing heavy metal fans would die in the ocean! But given the cultural or identity differences within the 'native' community also manifest into hatred sometimes, then I am not saying there is no 'cultural' aspect to this. In other words while some people are so stupid to judge simply by skin pigmentation, there is more to it than that.

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    6. Herbie, you're from Sheffield IIRC (which IIRC is the Muslim-convert capital of the UK: I've heard some Muslims call it "little Chechnya" because of its large white Muslim population).

      Is there any evidence that you've seen that Islam and Muslims are considered an ideological threat as opposed to just a racial one? What I've heard about some parents yanking their children from RE lessons about Islam (or school visits to the local mosque) seems to fit, as the only reason I can think of why parents would do that is because they fear their children could be converted...

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    7. Again, only just seen this!

      The only evidence I have seen from the ground so to speak is, and how can I put this politely, well, views based on total fucking ignorance and the kind of garbage printed in the gutter media. I see no evidence of fear of conversion but more out and out racism. I could say more but it would only depress me!

      I remember the debates around LGBT issues and the argument would be fear of conversion by parents concerned with inheritance. It was baloney then and is now.

      Having said that turns out most folk were not in any way homophobic, though with race issues I suspect those attitudes are harder to erode.

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  7. “I do it because a society dedicated to everyman-for-himself would be harsher for me as much as for others.”

    Tell that to the middle class in Venezuela or Brazil! This is another problem when progressive politics is dictated by the middle classes, they pervert the real class conflict, there is no way it is the 99% versus the 1%, in a country like Britain it is probably closer to 60:40 and even then all the cleavages along identity issues then comes into play. But the class struggle is not just against the bosses but also that middle class layer is clearly profit from the me me me society.
    In fact you could argue that Blairism is the ultimate expression of Middle Class self interest. Think of journalism which is now stuffed full of the Middle classes. Now it was always a Middle Class profession but at least 30 years ago to become a journalist you simply needed 5 o levels or equivalent. Now you need a degree. The affect of this was to make journalism a monopoly of the middle classes with predictable results. For ruling class think tanks it must be like picking apples from a tree (thank god for the likes of Assange, who is naturally hated by Middle Class journalism)!

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    1. Many jobs now require a degree that didn't 30 years ago: I suspect the middle-class hegemony in journalism is more due to the decline of the local press (due to competition for advertising spend with radio, TV and internet media).

      This reduced the number of slots available for budding journalists (as well as having other negative effects, such as the rise of "churnalism" based on pre-packaged press releases), and made it almost impossible to begin a career in the industry without an unpaid internship. This, not the requirement for a degree, is what has really locked the working class out of journalism.

      Competition from newer forms of media is also why the UK national press has doubled down on catering to the baby boomer generation (who have the most purchasing power due to property capital gains), thus explaining the rise and rise of the Mail (as well as its consistently pro-house-price-inflation stance) and the decline of the Mirror.

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    2. Many jobs may require that, but this doesn't change the fact that it changes the character of those professions.

      The reduction of working class people in journalism was something noted almost immediately, it wasn't a trend occurring after a decade or something like that. And the decline in local newspapers, not a major decline incidentally, came well into the noughties, long after the gentrification of the papers themselves.

      The actual evidence for a decline in newspapers is conflicting, certainly the fall in newspapers is nowhere near the fall in circulation or fall in revenues. This is simply because newspapers serve a function in shaping the minds of the masses and is not a function that will be given up so easily.

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    3. It is the fall in revenues that was pivotal in causing a reduction in their staffing levels, not the fall in influence.

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    4. Staffing levels didn't particularly reduce in any drastic way and certainly not before the trend to gentrification became a reality. In actual fact newspapers are heavily subsidised and even more so today, which is why every employee needs to be on point more so than ever!

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    5. Could you explain to me how newspapers are "heavily subsidised" (assuming that revenue from advertising doesn't count as subsidy)?

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  8. Apologies - didn't spot this until today!

    Subsidized as in reducing level of income from selling the actual newspaper. I would call advertising a subsidy because it is one part of the ruling class contributing to ruling class ideology.

    But I didn't have advertising in mind, I had in mind the actual direct investment by the ruling class billionaires (either through transers from more profitable parts of their empire or direct investment) and the fact that the gap between cost and sales volumes is ever rising, meaning that newspapers are more and more directed to overt propaganda because the owner can't simply treat it as a viable business.

    So for the media tycoon the money is made from sports, drama etc and not newspapers etc

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    1. On top of that think of the free papers that are now in circulation. The Metro which is free on buses for christs sake is owned by those that own the Daily Mail. How the hell do they get away with that!

      The first thing a socialist government should do it withdraw it!

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  9. «while Labour lost seats in the 2005 general election, it still won a majority despite the negative impact of its prosecution of the invasion of Iraq»

    The central fact of the english political and economic situation is property prices and rents in the Home Counties and London and marginal constituencies.

    As long as the property boom is making property owners richer at the expense of workers, incumbent governments always get re-elected. All the property owners who cared deeply about Iraq etc. massively voted against New Labour in the 2004 local elections, because those elections don't really matter as to national government's property policies. In the 2005 national elections they merely stopped voting New Labour, but did not start voting Conservative, voting instead LibDem or did not vote, to avoid firing the government and risk the end of the good times they were enjoying.

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