Friday, 21 June 2019

Selectorate Theory

Robert Saunders has a bee in his bonnet about the Conservative party leadership contest: "On taxation, public spending and, above all, on Brexit, the whole programme of government is being rewritten to suit the preferences of 160,000 anonymous party members. Not since the days of the rotten boroughs, before the Reform Act of 1832, have a few thousand people held such extraordinary, undemocratic power". After his recent essay on the Tory party's intellectual decline, he has turned his attention to its institutional corruption. But this is not a critique he limits to the Conservatives. For Saunders, the issue is a wider structural flaw in which representative democracy is put at risk by parties that allow the membership to determine policy and personnel: what he describes as the "pay-for-access democracies of the Big Two". The issue then is about Labour as much as the Tories and, if you were a cynic, you might be inclined to believe that he is in part using the latter as a proxy for the former. That his article appears in the New Statesman doesn't diminish the suspicion.

The obvious omission in the evidence that Saunders presents for the problematic nature of British political parties is that of the Liberal Democrats, who are arguably the most activist of the lot in their commitment to conference-mandated policy and membership elections. Saunders can choose to ignore the party, despite the current contest between Ed Davey and Jo Swinson, because it is unlikely to be in power, though you could reasonably argue that a leadership election during the coalition years might have had a significant impact on government policy. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that he is making assumptions about the type of person who is a member of the "Big Two", and in particular that the Tories have become more extreme in recent years. Just as "mass entryism" has always been a myth, so we should be sceptical of the idea that the attitudes of party members are volatile. One of Nick Clegg's achievements was to change the perception of his party members from sandal-wearing obsessives to be-suited sensibles, but the personnel and their beliefs didn't actually change that much.

Saunders also ignores the non-English parties, such as the SNP and DUP, but this seems to be part of a wider disregard for the international dimension. Despite the neoliberal encouragement of a homogeneous culture of professional politicians and managerialist parties, there remains a wide variety of organisational types across the globe, reflecting the social role of parties and the constraints of local political systems. This ranges from the Chinese Communist Party, where membership is often a career necessity but actual influence on policy is negligible, to US open primaries, where anyone can vote to select party representatives. On this spectrum the British party system is pretty much middle-of-the-road. What is eccentric is the British parliament, which in some ways still operates as if parties had yet to be invented. Saunders' focus is on the tension between British political parties and the parliamentary system, and he is clearly more enamoured of the latter than the former, hence his belief that MPs alone should select party leaders when such an appointment leads to a new Prime Minister.

As Saunders doesn't wish to present Conservative party members as frothing loons, and so reduce his reasoned case to plain bigotry, he employs a critique of virtue: that privilege bought by money is illegitimate. But the idea that party subscriptions constitute "buying influence" is bizarre. It's a small amount of money and it secures you a correspondingly small say. There can't be many party members who view their subs in purely transactional terms, and most activists are motivated more by altruism than a lust for power, even if it can come across as arrogant "do-goodery". The language of influence-buying is odd when you consider that Saunders does not mention the role of rich donors, though their growing influence over both the main parties is perhaps the single greatest institutional change seen over the last quarter of a century, as trade unions have been marginalised and the Conservative party membership has shrunk. The key to Boris Johnson's likely victory in the Tory leadership contest is his popularity with the "inner party" of donors and careerists as much as his popularity with the base.

The Labour party's membership has always been a site of ideological contest, not just in the struggle for influence and office within constituency parties and on the National Executive Committee, but in the valorisation of "ordinary party members" as both a collective conscience (the preferred image of the left) and a restraining influence (the preferred image of the right). This embodiment of Labour values in the membership is what you would expect from a democratic and egalitarian party (the Tories prefer embodiment in the party elite), but it means that ideological battles are framed as the party hierarchy "leaving" the membership (the right's preferred trope) or "betraying" it (the left's preferred trope), rather than as a division within the membership itself. It also leads to a desire to circumscribe acceptable beliefs and behaviours among the members, producing a disciplinary system where the demand for purges and auto-da-fés, in order to preserve the integrity of the "true" membership, is in obvious tension with natural justice.

In contrast, the Conservative party's membership has always been relatively opaque, contributing to the anthropological approach of much contemporary political science. Where Labour's herbivorous membership is routinely misrepresented - apparently rightwing under New Labour and leftwing today - the carnivorous nature of the Tory membership has generally been politely ignored, as if Enoch Powell always spoke to empty rooms and Norman Tebbit was an embarrassment. This opacity is reflected in a disciplinary system that appears to have been modelled on a golf club, where institutional solidarity means that you have to go a long way to sufficiently blot your copybook to face expulsion. It is only in the last few years, largely as a result of social media exposure, that individual members have come under sustained scrutiny. The reluctance of the party to expel Islamophobes and bigots is less a reflection of a secret sympathy and more a distaste for disciplinary action against fellow "club members".

Saunders, in my opinion, fails to make his case. Having the Prime Minister chosen by a party's members is no less democratic than restricting the choice to MPs, given that the same membership selected those MPs as candidates for Parliament and could likewise deselect them. Pleading that MPs must be able to ignore their party membership because of a responsibility to the full electorate or their own Burkean judgement is self-serving guff. The idea that a Prime Minister must enjoy the confidence of his or her party's MPs is no different to the argument that a party leader should do so, and I suspect this is really Saunders' point (that Corbyn is nowhere named in the article is the tell). But it is disingenuous to suggest that the Tory leadership contest, in which Boris Johnson has already received the votes of a majority of his party's MPs (160 out of 317), and in which the membership vote is likely to simply endorse this selection, is an affront to democracy. The greater challenges to fair representation lie within Parliament, not within the parties.

Friday, 14 June 2019

Tory Thought

The Conservative party leadership contest is being fought and analysed almost wholly in terms of personality, from the high-wire act that is Boris Johnson's attempt to restrain his sociopathy until he is over the line to the centrist love-in for Rory Stewart's small-bore noblesse oblige. Policy debate has largely been limited to precisely how loudly we will bang the door on the way out of the EU at the end of October. Beyond gestures to the right-wing membership on issues such as abortion and foreign aid, the substantive differences between the candidates are slight. The proposed tax cuts have the feel of a weary obligation - placating the household gods - while the dull rhetoric has been a mix of the platitudinous and the embrace-the-future management-speak of the 1990s (that Matt Hancock referred to himself as "the candidate of the future" in his withdrawal from the race was pure parody). Fundamentally, the Tories have run out of politics.

This isn't a new development. Critics on both the left and right have noted the intellectual barrenness of the Conservatives for some years now, and many of the political obituaries for David Cameron concluded that the party had failed to renew itself beyond the cosmetic during his tenure, remaining intellectually subservient to its Thatcherite heyday and opportunistic in its embrace of Blairite policies and practices. My own view is that there hasn't been a conservative ideology worthy of the name since the introduction of universal suffrage and that most of the policy innovations championed by the Tories over the last one hundred years were simply the adoption of elements of liberalism, from free trade to gay marriage. Attempts to define a conservative philosophy underpinning this opportunism have not succeeded. While thinkers such as Michael Oakeshott emphasised a preference for practice over theory, in reality they were simply trying to provide a coherent frame for a set of prejudices, rooted in social structures and property relations, that were often contradictory in practice.

The fundamental dichotomy in British politics is between liberalism and socialism: capital and labour. The parliamentary party formations do not precisely map to these because of electoral pragmatism. The Labour party is an uneasy coalition of the two, while the Conservative party has sought to fuse liberalism with the anti-intellectual conservatism of its base. The reason why the contemporary Conservative party appears to be a roiling mess of atavistic impulses and wishful-thinking is because that base has become dominant, and the reason for that dominance was the intellectual failure of liberalism a decade ago. On the left, socialism is likewise enjoying a revival, albeit in the form of the cautious social democracy of Corbyn and McDonnell, while a decadent liberalism has retreated to an obsession with virtue and a promiscuous hunt for electoral relevance, producing such morbid symptoms as Chuka Umunna's political trajectory. On the right, the eclipse of liberalism has allowed the Tory id to master its ego.

It is in this context that I think we should read the historian Robert Saunders' essay in the New Statesman, 'The Closing of the Conservative Mind' (a title that echoes Alan Bloom's reactionary jeremiad against modernity). This is a liberal critique of the Tories' intellectual funk that studiously avoids mentioning the crisis of liberalism, casting the party's poor state as the result of cerebral exhaustion rather than decapitation. For Saunders, the change has been nonetheless dramatic: "A party that once set the agenda of British politics – birthing such big ideas as 'Tory democracy', 'One Nation' and 'the property-owning democracy' – seems worn out intellectually. A tradition that was once cautious of change – that distrusted what the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called 'the jump-to-glory style of politics' – rushes eagerly towards the unknown; a party that once preached scepticism calls its disciples to 'believe in Brexit', and to the conduct of policy 'by faith alone'".

A glance at the history, from Churchill's calamitous decision to return to the gold standard in 1925 via Suez in 1956 to Thatcher's faith in monetarism in the early 1980s, should be enough to disabuse anyone of the idea that the Tories were habitually cautious and sceptical. It is one of the wonders of political framing that the conventional perception of the Conservative party is so wholly at variance with its record in office. The insouciance of Cameron in gambling on a referendum and the subsequent incompetence of Theresa May were both typical of Tory government, not some erratic diversion from a history of careful judgement and skilful management. In surveying the history of Tory thought Saunders mentions both Keith Joseph and Enoch Powell, but it doesn't seem to occur to him that their emblematic value lies less in their undoubted intellectual rigour and more in their susceptibility to obsessional madness.

Saunders is a good enough historian to recognise that Tory thought has largely been shop-bought rather than home-made: "Its most important inspirations have been borrowed from other traditions: Edmund Burke was a Whig, Joseph Chamberlain a Radical, and Friedrich Hayek, one of the patron saints of Thatcherism, published an essay explaining 'Why I am not a Conservative'". But what he doesn't do is note that Hayek self-identified as a classical liberal and that it was this liberalism, with its emphasis on self-reliance and entrepreneurialism, that attracted Margaret Thatcher. Though he describes her as fiercely intelligent but no intellectual, he fails to appreciate that her radicalism arose from a serious engagement with liberal thought, rather than just being the organic product of her Methodist, small shop-keeping background. It appears she is still suffering from Whiggish condescension.

Saunders treats the history of Tory thought largely in isolation from other intellectual currents, thereby giving it the coherence and narrative thread of a distinct tradition, despite appearances to the contrary: "Conservatism, then, has historically been a tradition of ideas; yet it has also cultivated a reputation for anti-intellectualism. That was partly strategic. It has always suited the Conservative Party to present its ideas not as preferences that might be debated, but as simple common sense: a set of truths about the world, rather than prescriptions for it". This textbook description of hegemony explains how an ideology can present itself as non-ideological, but it doesn't help us understand precisely what that ideology is. Where Saunders comes closest to doing so is in his brief critique of "market liberalism", under which "no institution has been spared the cleansing fire of the market". The contemporary crisis of conservatism is fundamentally a crisis of liberalism.

Boris Johnson is likely to be the next Conservative party leader, and in all probability Prime Minister, because he is opportunistic enough to flex his liberal instincts to suit a conservative, illiberal base. This lack of virtue may appal liberal commentators in the media, but it is liberalism's best hope of keeping the Conservative party together, even if it comes at the cost of leaving the EU. While a split into a Farage-friendly nationalist party and a liberal centre-right party would enthuse those commentators, many of whom are already fantasising about their "dream teams" in respect of the latter, they know full well that this would lead to a Labour government and all the risks for capital that that would entail. Until liberalism can stage its own intellectual comeback, it must rely on whatever comes to hand to maintain capital's political dominance. If it cannot recapture the Labour party, then it must preserve the Conservative party. Johnson is the tool.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Political Geography

Rob Ford recently asked the question, "Is British politics on the brink of a Brexit realignment?" Though there have been plenty of similar think-pieces over the last couple of years, the speculation has reached a peak with the recent local and European Parliament elections in which the two main parties suffered at the hands of smaller parties for the first time since, well, the last set of elections. Yesterday's Peterborough by-election (in which the incumbent party held the seat - the very definition of a non-event) turned the dial up to 11, being billed in advance as the moment when "our two-party system suddenly went bankrupt". The Brexit realignment thesis assumes a wider sociology in which values have taken over from material interests, but there is actually little evidence that a shift is underway. Such an interpretation is understandable coming from a centrist commentariat that remains enamoured by the idea of Labour's eclipse, but it's more surprising when it comes from political scientists who know that a political dispute can be momentous without being constitutive. That, after all, was the lesson of the EEC referendum in 1975, when the temporary division into "in" and "out" alliances did not prefigure the 1979 general election.

The last great realignment occurred in the early twentieth century when universal suffrage brought an entire class into politics, leading to Labour's replacement of the Liberals as the progressive standard-bearer. Views hadn't changed, the electoral system had. There is nothing like that social watershed in play now, and every reason to be sceptical that the two main parties have had their day. What we are probably witnessing is less a realignment than a recomposition, which is something that all parties periodically go through. In other words, more along the lines of the radical ideological shifts that the Conservative party undertook in the late-70s and Labour undertook in the mid-90s. In fact, at the level of ideology, the current evolution may be much more modest, despite the apocalyptic tone of the reporting. What may be unusual is that both main parties are recomposing at the same time, which suggests that they are reacting to independent factors rather than just responding to each other's moves.

Ford, along with Matthew Goodwin, has been a chief proponent of the idea that politics is shifting from economic interest (or class) to culture (or identity). This anti-materialist analysis has been around as long as the materialist view of history, and its expansion from the political right to the centre is by no means a novel development, but it is true to say that Brexit has seen the centre fully embrace the "two tribes" mentality. This has led to a number of ironies, such as that advocates of electoral reform have turned into majoritarians, demanding the ultimate first past the post poll in the form of a second referendum, while erstwhile pluralists have insisted that there can be no compromise and that attempting to bridge the divide is futile. It has also led to a hysterical focus on virtue in which terms such as loyalty and integrity have been mangled beyond recognition (defectors condemning defections, sabotage excused as dissent). These are all symptoms of a centrism that has lost its bearings since 2008 and is now adopting a rightist worldview - them and us - in a vain attempt to "resist" the right.

Ford's thesis has two parts. First, that "Voters' tribal attachments to the traditional parties have been eroding for decades, and the newcomers are mobilising deep divides in the electorate — over education, identity, diversity — that have been building for a long time". The second part is the belief that a tipping-point can arise in a first-past-the-post electoral system, allowing a new party to replace an old one if it is seen as a credible option: "Think of it as the electoral 'Tinkerbell effect' — if people believe new parties can win, then that belief becomes self-fulfilling. If people cease to believe the old parties are unbeatable, they become beatable." The second part of the thesis was thoroughly tested by the SDP in the 1980s. They established credibility with a number of by-election wins and secured 25% of the vote in the 1983 general election as part of the Alliance with the Liberals, but their support was spread too thinly to translate into a proportionate number of seats and thereafter they faded away until their absorption by the older party.

The corollary of this was the SNP's more recent success in Scotland, which Ford characterises as the "annihilation" of Labour, where it benefited from an even but preponderant spread in votes. This winner-takes-all dynamic obscures both the volatility of the SNP vote and the resilience of Labour's. The former almost trebled between 2010 and 2015 (from 0.5 to 1.5 million), largely on the back of the "heroic failure" of the 2014 independence referendum, but then lost a third of its votes in 2017 (down to just under 1.0 million). Labour's collapse between 2010 and 2015 was also a third of its vote (from 1.0 to 0.7 million). In 2017 it maintained its vote but picked up more seats because of its relative concentration and the erosion of the SNP vote by the Tories. That the latter's improvement from 0.4 to 0.7 million (40k ahead of Labour) between 2015 and 2017 was presented as a triumph by the media tells you more about the media than it does about seismic shifts in the Scottish body politic.

The "Tinkerbell effect" is a theory that allows Ford to have it both ways. He can cast an outlier as the eruption of an underlying trend and also dismiss any evidence of a reversion to the mean as the residual bias of the electoral system, so the inconvenient evidence of 2017, when the two main parties posted their highest combined share since 1970, can safely be ignored. Ford's wishful-thinking was most evident in his preview of this week's ballot, which also had the bad luck to appear the day before Change UK split asunder: "It is a remarkable coincidence that, at the very moment that two new parties are making a credible bid to break Britain’s long political duopoly, a by-election is being held. If one or both of the new challengers can overhaul the big two in Peterborough on Thursday, it may begin a feedback loop, with success reinforcing credibility, which in turn begets further success."

In the event, Change UK didn't bother the scorers and the Liberal Democrats reverted to their long-running national poll average after the giddy heights of the European Parliament elections. While Labour lost vote share, it retained the seat (which it was already fortunate to win in 2017) because of the collapse of the Conservative vote under pressure from the Brexit party. Farage's advance certainly spells bad news for the Tories, but less because of Brexit than because a single-issue party highlights the intellectual void that is modern conservatism. Beyond quitting the EU, what do the Tories now stand for? The superficially plausible arguments of Thatcherite neoliberalism, that deregulation and marketisation would lead to a healthy economy and opportunity for all, had lost their power by the millennium and were shown to be rank hypocrisy by 2008. Since then, the Tories have allowed Europe to fill the void while their attempt to build a broader consensus around economic management has led to the cul-de-sac of austerity. That the Brexit party has no platform other than hard Brexit isn't cunning tactics by Farage, just a recognition that he doesn't need more than this to successfully undermine the Conservatives.

This takes us back to the first part of Ford's thesis, that voters are now motivated more by identity and cultural values than they are by material interest, and that this is dissolving the electoral coalitions of the traditional parties of the left and right. The assumption is that there is a potential alliance of the reactionary fractions of the working and middle classes on the one hand and of the progressive fractions of those same classes on the other. In fact, these new alliances look very much like the existing voter coalitions. What the realignment thesis actually imagines is a recomposition that produces a liberal-conservative duopoly in which the left is marginalised and the right reverts to a pre-Thatcherite purity. Regardless of the salience of culture or the material to voters, what this model fails to factor in is the importance of geography, beyond a tendency to use terms like "Northern" as a proxy for supposedly homogenous views or characterise areas like Peterborough as "leave territory". Both reactionaries and progressives are to be found across the country, and where there is a disproportion (e.g. the attraction of progressives to cities) it tends to map to existing party strengths and thus reinforces the traditional duopoly. The message from electoral history is that an insurgent party can only hope to displace one of the main incumbents if it can muster a resilient core of voters concentrated by geography.

Labour supplanted the Liberals because it was the party of the urban working class. The Tories have been the longest-lasting major party because they have dominated rural areas. It is possible that the Greens or Liberal Democrats could erode Labour's share of middle-class progressives, but this is unlikely to cause it to lose its urban seats where the vote is predominantly working class. The Liberals can only break through if the poorest fifth of the population is disenfranchised. It is possible that the Brexit party could split the Conservative vote in a general election, but this would probably not be sufficiently concentrated to allow the new party to take more than a handful of seats (similar to the performance of UKIP in 2015). The more likely benificiaries in most constituencies would be whoever came second to the Tories in 2017. The idea that the future electoral map will be defined by Brexit is only likely to be true if a general election is fought on the issue of no-deal, and should that happen then the division will almost certainly be along traditional party lines, with Labour (de facto) backing remain. Brexit isn't realigning British politics, but it is recomposing the Conservative party.