Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Where Are We Now?

General election campaigns are often marked by the appearance of an older woman on TV telling us what to think. No, not Theresa May, but some otherwise obscure member of the public whose encounter with politics becomes emblematic of the narrative. In 2010 it was Gillian Duffy prompting Gordon Brown's "bigot" gaffe, which allowed the media to present Labour as insufficiently considerate of "legitimate concerns". 2015 didn't have a standout "says what we're thinking" lady, but the 2016 EU referendum produced a retrospective beauty with "straight banana woman" on the BBC's Question Time earlier this year. This month we've already been blessed with Brenda from Bristol, whose weary "not another one" has reinforced the ideological claim that the people have better things to do with their time than vote. This latest variant suggests that what we really want is strong leadership unconstrained by opposition (I believe that's the Tory campaign slogan), or what has come to be known as "managed democracy" (as if there were ever an unmanaged kind). The subliminal message - "oh, just get on with Brexit" - will obviously benefit the Conservatives, as will the media consensus that Labour faces a rout.

Though some Tories will counsel against hubris and worry that a low turnout in the expectation of a big majority might be counter-productive, history suggests that many voters like being on the winning side and will echo received wisdom, while polling data suggests that the Tories have been well in front since last June. Labour's rating had actually been in gradual decline since 2013, after it fumbled the Tories' "deficit denial" charge, at which point it was polling around 38-40%. This marked the high point of dissatisfaction with the coalition government, with Lib Dem support having halved from the 23% recorded in the 2010 general election and UKIP having risen from under 5% to the mid-teens. Despite the prominence of Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin's "UKIP to eat Labour's lunch" thesis, it is clear from the data that UKIP's rise was largely at the expense of the Tories, who went from around 40% in their post-election honeymoon period to around 30% mid-term. The reversing of that dynamic (strangely, Ford and Goodwin aren't now suggesting that UKIP's decline will benefit Labour) has put the Tories back over 40%.

The 2015 general election result wasn't as narrow as the pollsters predicted, with the vote share of the two main parties showing little change over 2010, but you could have made an accurate guess if you had simply assumed that both the Lib Dem and UKIP votes would soften further on polling day and almost wholly to the benefit of the Tories, in particular delivering them seats previously held by the Lib Dems in the South West of England and thus providing the basis for a slim majority. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour's poll rating improved slightly over the next 12 months, from around 31% to 33%, but it dropped back to around 30% after the EU referendum in June, was pushed down into the upper twenties around the time of Owen Smith's leadership challenge in the Autumn, and fell further to around 25% after the invocation of Article 50 in March of this year. From around the mid-30s in June of last year, the Tories jumped to 40% in July, following Theresa May's accession and her conversion to the cause of Brexit, and then took a further step up to the mid-40s in March with the triggering of Article 50.

It should be pretty clear from this that Brexit is still decisive to public opinion and will probably determine the outcome of the election. That might appear like stating the obvious, but it needs to be reiterated when so much of the debate in the liberal media has been hijacked by the delusion of anti-Brexit tactical voting. While Labour's emerging position - keeping as much of the single market and customs union as possible, and probably fudging free movement - looks like it might appeal to some leavers as well as most non-ultra remainers, it is doubtful that many voters will be swayed by it. The Lib Dems who voted Tory in 2015 and leave in 2016 don't care enough, while the "libertarians" now leaving UKIP to stew in its own Islamophobic juice are insignificant. The reactionary working class voters who made Sunderland briefly famous last year will probably split in multiple directions, but a "patriotic" vote for the Tories or a return to abstention are more likely than a vote for a Labour Party that many deserted after 1997. Most "floating voters" (i.e. those who switch directly between Labour and Conservative) seem to want the Tories to own Brexit, for good or ill.

With the handling of Brexit now the leading issue (though not one that will be properly debated), the Tories know that they can sidestep their traditional vulnerability on areas such as the NHS and public spending by largely saying nothing, with the notable exception of attacks on Labour's defence policy (I wonder if Michael Fallon ever feels typecast?). If challenged on the parlous state of public services, the Tories know they can insist that sacrifices must be made to secure the fruits of Brexit, continuing the purgative rhetoric of Cameron and Osborne. Though he'll get no credit for it, John McDonnell has largely protected Labour's flank on economic management, but the damage done by Labour's failure to negate Tory attacks on the cause of the deficit during the coalition years is going to take a lot longer to fade from public memory - essentially until the negative effects of Brexit (and the specific choices made in negotiation) become indisputable and the Tories run out of excuses, which might not be until after 2022.

The Conservatives remain vulnerable on cost of living issues, in particular weak wage growth and expensive housing, not least because they can no longer blame this on recession in Europe. Not only is the EU political wobble largely over (the populist threat has ebbed in The Netherlands, is unlikely to progress in France and has already peaked in Germany), but growth is picking up and the government's official line is that we can thrive regardless. The accusation that Brexit will exacerbate the growing living standards crisis needs to be emphasised but it is unlikely to gain much traction - too many voters are either sceptical or believe that undeserving others will take the pain - while Labour's solutions will be rubbished as destructive until they are shamelessly adopted (the minimum wage, energy price caps etc). It's likely that inflation will start to become a pressing issue for many families by the end of this year, but the Tory calculation is that it won't matter for the poll in June. To add to this fortuitous timing, the Conservative Party can also profit from the prevailing political dynamics in Scotland and Wales.

The Tories can expect to do reasonably well in Scotland simply because there is now a substantial intersection between unionists and leavers. The combination of the independence referendum of 2014 and the EU referendum of 2016 has socially re-legitimised voting Conservative - i.e. something you wouldn't be embarrassed to admit to doing in mixed company. This shouldn't come as a surprise. The claim that Scotland was peculiarly social democratic was always fanciful, despite the antipathy towards the Conservatives since Thatcher. Ironically, a strong Tory showing could turn a number of constituencies into a three-way contest, assuming Labour can stay in the fight and present itself both as the most effective opposition to the Tories at Westminster and a protest at the less than impressive SNP record at Holyrood. The problem is that the nationalist/unionist cleavage looks likely to dominate Scottish politics for a while yet (at least through Brexit and a possible indyref2), which means that Labour's realistic best hope this year is a vote share over 20%. The rebuilding of Scottish Labour will take a decade at least.

The news that the Tories are ahead in the opinion polls in Wales for the first time since polling began should be treated with caution as it is only a single poll on a sample of just over 1,000. That said, there are reasons to expect Tory gains in the Principality, mainly through capturing voters from UKIP (many of whom are English immigrants, ironically) and as a consequence of the decline of the Lib Dems. The idea that Labour are facing a wipe-out equivalent to the one they suffered in Scotland is implausible, but no doubt there will be no shortage of "Nye Bevan turning in his grave" guff to add to the "Keir Hardie turning in his grave" guff we've had to endure since 2015. Labour may well lose some seats in Wales, but the end result is likely to be a relative shift in the balance of the duopoly that echoes the shift in the popular vote across the UK, not a shift in the paradigm. Theresa May is trying to build a majority sufficient to offset future rebellions as Brexit turns sour. A handful of seats gained in Scotland and Wales won't be enough. The real battleground will be in England, and that predominantly means marginals in the Midlands. Stoke-on-Trent Central will be back in the news soon enough.


  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment25 April 2017 at 19:00

    Almost nothing to disagree with here other than 1) it is overly optimistic, 2) Gordon Brown's "bigot" gaffe should have gaffe in quotes and not bigot, and where we are is:

    A) In a culutural crisis
    B) Well on the road to a dystopian future.

  2. The problem with Corbyn is he thinks being an MP is a hobby not a job.

  3. Herbie Destroys the Environment25 April 2017 at 19:30

    "The problem with Corbyn is he thinks being an MP is a hobby not a job."

    You really need to look up his bio and then I am fully confident you will disown this shit.

    He his of course a conviction not a careerist politician, and I guess this is his problem!

    1. Ben Philliskirk25 April 2017 at 19:38

      Ah, Herbie. If you'd seen Dipper commenting elsewhere you would know that his definition of 'job' is likely to be an occupation where you elbow your way into as commanding a position in the hierarchy as possible, then use it to order others around and enjoy the privileges of the role. So Corbyn falls short there, I'm afraid.

    2. Herbie Destroys the Environment25 April 2017 at 19:41

      It was more the use of the word hobby I had a problem with, as this implies a something done in leisure time, whereas we can see from Corbyn's bio that all his energies have been devoted to progressive politics.

      It is why I made the point about conviction and not careerist politician!

  4. Ben Philliskirk25 April 2017 at 19:45

    The amazing thing is just how easily this election campaign has been turned into a single-issue vote on Brexit, and the even more amazing thing is just how easily the Tories have been able to establish a commanding lead without having any domestic policies and without actually informing the electorate about their vision of Brexit and how they are going to make it come about!

    As you suggest, Brenda from Bristol has already given us the authentic flavour of the 2017 General Election. Unfortunately there are so many people who find marking a cross on a piece of paper to be equivalent to a 48-hour shift down the pit. A lot of these people value democracy so little that they are quite willing to give someone supreme power for five years so they can avoid thinking. Unfortunately they won't avoid moaning, but will target that at foreigners, the unemployed, their Labour council, etc, etc, etc...

  5. Very nice poke at the execrable Goodwin.

    Good analysis. Corbyn's misfortune, apart from being an accidental leader, is to be on receipt of the tail risk of New Labour. It was Blair's stated policy to remove Labour from its dependency on the working class. Recent polling, showing that the parties have almost identical ratings in both AB and CDE classes show how effective this has been. Blair was, I would grudgingly admit, correct in the need for Labour to be more relevant to the non-manual and non-public sector sections of the population. The problem is that he did so to no permanent effect, while alienating the existing support.

    It has long been the project of the right to split the left from its natural support. The method of choice, long the case in the US, has been to prioritise identity over class. Finally Brexit has brought identity to the fore, and Labour naturally suffers. Until Labour can reverse this trend, it's in trouble.

    We've already seen this happen in Scotland, and it sounds like something similar is happening in Wales. It's al too familiar to those in Northern Ireland.

    1. Ben Philliskirk27 April 2017 at 16:03

      I think New Labour's most malign consequence was their conscious depoliticisation of politics. The emphasis on 'what works' and managerial competence created a 'consumerist' approach to politics, treating it as a product to be delivered efficiently. When allied to the increasing eagerness of politicians to pass on responsibility for problems and to find scapegoats, this seriously weakened politics that was based on collective or individual self-interest or principle.

      As such, we have a situation where politics has been largely divorced from the rational expression and resolution of conflicts of interest. Instead, as you suggest, 'identity' has come to the fore, and the kind of poll-led manipulation of 'swing voters' has become almost impossible, as they don't respond the way they 'should'.

      The Tories were quite savvy post-referendum. The 'culprits' stepped down, the loonies were prevented from achieving the leadership, and the party united behind Brexit in an attempt to secure the position of the establishment. This has been vital, as current politics resembles that of a war, where public opinion is expected to fall behind the national leadership, and dissenting voices are considered unhelpful or even seditious. Discussion and debate is right out, and people do not want to disturb themselves by contemplating 'issues'.

    2. I agree pretty much totally.

      If you trawl through FATE's backlog, you'll find that he's very hot on managerialism and its consequences. Essentially my argument is the same. Managerialism means accepting the neoliberal consensus. Depoliticisation implies the removal of "class conflict" for want of a better term. This means that those on the hard end of neoliberalism have nobody to represent them. Identity politics channels that failure and levers voters away from Labour. As many have noted, UKIP and Brexit have been the midwives to the conversion of labour voters into Tory ones.

    3. My "backlog"? I'll assume you mean back catalogue, rather than that I'm behind on my homework.

      I think the popular response to Brexit, which is determining the election, is an example of managerialism's hegemonic strength. May is offering herself as a super-manager as a much as a classic dictator. Give me superior authority is the political equivalent of the CEO's demand for superior pay (as an expression of potency).

      The vote last June holed the concept of parliamentary sovereignty beneath the waterline, but the subsequent events have shown that there is little appetite to shoulder the responsibilities entailed by popular sovereignty. We, the people, have bottled it, and that includes remainers who now demand that May & co own the process for good or ill.

      The authoritarian turn is a product of neoliberalism's success, rather than its failure. We've got so used to the idea that authority is metaphysical (the market, the wisdom of the crowd, strong and stable leadership etc) that we have embraced our disempowerment.

    4. backlog = old age brain fart, apologies.

    5. Ben Philliskirk28 April 2017 at 10:07

      The last few years really have blown out of the water many of the assumptions of Blairite ideology and strategy. Masses of 'swing' voters are not 'aspirational' and many people do not seek the opportunity to choose or relish the responsibility to make decisions. Instead, as you both have stated, people are clinging to managerialism as a comfort blanket. Of course, New Labour knew this in practice, which explains most of their actions when in power....