Sunday, 11 June 2017

Waiting for God Knows What

Well that was fun, wasn't it? I don't know about you, but I'm still chortling. It may not make up for the disappointment of the 2015 general election result, let alone the catastrophe of 2016's referendum, but this year's national poll has at least cheered Labour, confounded the centrist commentariat and confirmed that the Conservatives remain the stupid party. That said, Labour lost again, Theresa May is still in Number 10 and the hitherto unnamable representatives of the DUP have slouched towards Parliamentary relevance. A mixed bag indeed. A sound rule of politics is that what a party most harps on about tends to reveal its anxieties as much as its assumed strength. Labour's festishisation of the NHS stems not only from its achievement in founding the institution but from its guilt over repeatedly undermining it, from the proposed introduction of prescription charges in 1951 through the failure to reverse marketisation after 1997. Likewise, the Tories' festishisation of Trident stems from their vulnerability on defence (they still get shivers at the thought of the 1983 Franks Report) as much as their opponents' division on the subject of whether pushing the button at the first hint of trouble from North Korea is a sign of strength or not.

The Conservative Party's persistent Achilles Heel is its lack of executive competence, which is seen in economic mismanagement (famously the return to the gold standard and the ERM debacle) but also extends to misjudgements in foreign affairs (Suez, Libya) and even cock-ups of basic political management. Ted Heath's miscalculation of the popular mood in 1974 ("Who governs Britain?" - "Not you, chum") has now been eclipsed by the errors of David Cameron in calling the EU referendum and Theresa May in calling last week's general election (the congregation will now stand and intone, "The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce"). The need to balance this embarrassing record of incompetence prompts the media (both conservative and liberal) to search for equivalent Labour misjudgements, though many of these are either myths ("Crisis? What crisis?") or unprovable counterfactuals, such as Gordon Brown's supposed mistake in not calling an election in 2007. When Labour does go badly wrong (e.g. the embrace of austerity in 1931 or Blair's unconditional support for the Iraq War), it is invariably the result of adopting establishment (i.e. Conservative) thinking.

The media coverage of the election result has been heavily inflected by voguish demography, hence too much attention has already been paid to the "youth surge" and we can expect plenty of "war of the generations" think-pieces once detailed breakdowns are available. The increase in the Labour vote from 9.3 to 12.9 million cannot be attributed solely or even mainly to greater turnout among the young. There are only about 3 and a half million registered electors in the 18-24 age-group, so even a pronounced swing away from the Tories or a significant pickup in registrations would only add around half a million votes at most. My own guess is that the additional 3 million was spread much more evenly across the age spectrum. There will be a bias in this distribution towards younger age-groups, but not as pronounced as the media narrative would suggest. While a segmental analysis of the vote does have practical value, we should be cautious about the ideological role that demography plays in politics. One purpose, at least since public choice theory came to prominence in the 1960s, is to insist that we are all self-interested buyers of retail policies, hence the young were accused this time round of voting solely for free tuition and other fruits from the magic money tree while the old were assumed to be spooked by the loss of their winter fuel allowance and the pensions triple-lock as much as a possible dementia tax.

An even older ideological purpose, dating from the introduction of universal suffrage, is to undermine the fundamental claim of the left, namely that it represents the many (those who work for a living) against the few (those who live off the labour of others). The distraction from class has usually taken two complementary forms: the claim that the left seeks to represent self-interested minority groups while the party of the right represents "the national interest". In contemporary politics, students play a rhetorical role similar to ethnic minorities (and trade unions in the past) as symbols of indolence and parasitism, but with the added advantage that they are easier to publicly insult. Much of the criticism made by liberals and the "centre-left" has revolved around these two forms, from the suggestion that the white working class has been ignored as a result of excessive political correctness to the idea that Labour needs to adopt a more patriotic stance to win votes. This framing isn't about to disappear, certainly not among Northern MPs who saw a swing to the Tories, but part of the public glee at the election outcome (even among people who didn't vote Labour) surely arises from the realisation that we can more generally discount these pessimistic views. Hope had a better election than hate.

Perhaps the most striking feature of  the vote has been the return of two-party politics, with a combined Conservative and Labour share of 82% (the highest since 1970). I thought the share would be high, but that the Tory margin would be greater (45% vs 35%). I did expect the smaller parties to go sharply backwards, and that Tory gains from UKIP would be diluted, but I under-estimated how low the smaller parties would go and how much the increased turnout would benefit Labour. The Tories added 2.3 million votes while Labour gained 3.5 million. UKIP was down 3.3 million. If we assume the ex-Kippers broke roughly 2:1 in favour of the Tories, this implies that Labour gained almost all of the increased turnout of 1.5 million, plus a further 1 million from the other small parties. Interestingly, this seems to have come more from the Greens (who lost over half a  million votes) than the Lib Dems or the SNP. Despite adding seats, the Lib Dems have seen their vote erode further, from 7.9% to 7.4%, which is fractionally worse than the 7.5% they got in 1970. On that occasion they won only 6 seats (I predicted 5 or fewer this time round). Their higher return of 12 seats this year looks to have been due to a combination of narrow targeting and their ability to come through the middle, notably in Scotland where there is now a four-way fight. Just as the plan for a new centrist party looks dead, the Lib Dems are likely to remain marginalised while their post-Brexit future - shorn of the EU as an organising principle - looks bleak.

The SNP was always going to struggle to hold onto its 2015 gains, but the underlying story from Scotland is a return to an older pattern of voting and a drop in turnout that disproportionately hit the Nationalists, suggesting the post-indyref hangover has kicked in. The Tories have re-established themselves in the better-off south and north east of the country while Labour has regained a presence in the Central Belt. With a second independence referendum off the agenda for the foreseeable future, even in the event of a Hard Brexit, and with the locus of the struggle over social and economic policy shifting back from Holyrood to Westminster, the suspicion is that the SNP vote will erode further but that gains in the next general election are likely to skew more to Labour than to the Tories, largely because of the greater potential in seats along the M8 corridor between Glasgow and Edinburgh, which means this could be Ruth Davidson's finest hour. The Tories actually secured a lower vote share in Scotland than they did in Wales, but it was the movement in seats that caught the media's eye - the one up, the other down. Of more historic significance was that the Liberals failed to win a single seat in the principality for the first time since 1859.

The story in Northern Ireland was the electoral eclipse of both the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. There is now an entrenched stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Fein and little prospect of a Chuckle Brothers mark 2 (Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster are closer to Vladimir and Estragon, though I doubt O'Neill has ever worn a bowler). In the circumstances, it is obvious folly for the Tory party to effectively take sides in order to secure a working majority at Westminster, even if they do avoid formal coalition and limit the price to cash rather than contentious policy. The danger is that any arrangement with London potentially becomes more valuable to the DUP than the restoration of power-sharing at Stormont, so the de facto impact of a confidence deal is to place the peace process on ice if not in jeopardy. I suspect the not-so-cunning Tory plan is for this to be a temporary arrangement until such time as Theresa May can be eased out and another general election called, presumably at an opportune moment in the Brexit negotiations. That the latter will now be flexed for short-term party gain should not come as a surprise. That has been the Tory dynamic for the last quarter of a century, much to the evident frustration of the rest of the EU who now seem determined to call time.

Some liberals are hopeful that a reduced majority and the DUP's preference for an open border with the Republic will encourage a softer Brexit. This strikes me as naive. The DUP has appealed to business interests in its long campaign to supplant the UUP, but this pragmatism did not lead it to support remain in the EU referendum, despite the obvious benefits that membership brings to Northern Ireland. Its existential purpose is first to rule out any possibility of a united Ireland - and the EU has always been seen as a backdoor threat in that regard - and second to preserve the social dominance of a narrow Protestantism embodied in the Orange Order and the Free Presbyterian Church. Despite some obvious ideological overlaps, most mainland Tories actually have little sympathy for the DUP, which they regard as even more infra dig than UKIP, hence Ruth Davidson's evident discomfort, while the DUP zealots assume that all Tories are ultimately posh traitors if not active homosexuals. Boris Johnson might get away with calling UKIP a "lost Tory tribe", but he's not stupid enough to make the same claim about the Democratic Unionists.

The story in England was also of a return to more traditional voting patterns with the Tories gaining share in the North East and East Midlands, where there is no shortage of social reactionaries and a tradition of working class Toryism quite distinct from the gobby, Southern form advanced by Kelvin McKenzie in his pomp at The Sun. This revival, largely fuelled by ex-Kippers, wasn't enough to pick up more than a handful of seats, and there seems little likelihood it will increase much further in the future, short of Corbyn declaring that he's in a gay relationship with Gerry Adams (and even that might not prove enough). In contrast, Labour put on votes and won seats more widely across England, from Keighley to Kensington, reinforcing the suspicion that this was down to monopolising the increased turnout at a national level rather than the fruits of a more Blue Labour pitch to Kippers by MPs from the right of the party. In London, Labour continues to prosper, so much so that the remaining Tory presence is beginning to look anomalous, though this strength appears to be driven more by concerns over inequality and housing than remainer pique, hence Kate Hoey still managed to increase her vote in Vauxhall.

The meta-story across the country is the return of substantive social and economic policy to the heart of political debate - i.e. the manifestos did their job for once, for good or ill - replacing the obsession with deliberately misleading symbols such as the deficit or Trident and the infantile guff produced by focus groups (if you think pollsters had a bad election, spare a thought for the think-tanks and vox-poppers who seemed incapable of locating Labour voters before last Thursday). In this regard, the reactionary ambition of the now-departed Nick Timothy, which was evident in the ill-considered dementia tax, is as significant as John McDonnell's rehabilitation of mild Keynsianism. In terms of policy, the election result suggests that austerity will be demoted from a comprehensive programme to an opportunistic bias, if only because the current incumbent of Number 10 is unlikely to be facing judgement on the state of the deficit in 5 years time. This doesn't mean that welfare and public sector cuts will be reversed or the NHS properly funded - the not-so covert strategic goals haven't changed - but it probably means that the fetish of targets will be binned and clamorous interests will be bought off to avoid rebellions in the Commons. The transactional nature of the deal with the DUP will set the tone for what remains of Theresa May's premiership. Now is a good time to take to the streets.

Though the demand in Parliament and the liberal media for a Soft Brexit will grow stronger, I suspect that May's parlous position makes a "no deal is better than a bad deal" flounce even more attractive to the ultras who imagine that a popular majority would coalesce around defiance of Brussels. Her aim was to secure a large enough majority to provide a buffer against rebellions from either leavers or remainers, but the end result is a Mexican standoff in which no one wants to make the first move. Given that May cannot reconcile the competing interests in her own party, she must either agree a Soft Brexit with Labour or follow the ultras off the cliff. The former is clearly unpalatable, effectively ceding control of the government's central business to the opposition, even if pragmatic Tories cite "the national interest", while the latter would likely lead to another snap election and a defeat for the Conservative Party. While there may still be a majority for leave, there has never been a majority for a Hard Brexit and a cards-on-the-table offer by Labour (quit the EU but keep the single market and customs union and compromise on free movement) would probably add at least another 5% to its popular vote, while many non-ultra Tories would probably abstain.

We are clearly in an endgame, or perhaps on the eve of a coup, not least because of the the imminent start of negotiations with the EU27 (though, to be fair, the initial focus will largely be administrative, so the real deadline is nearer Christmas). Despite his proven executive incompetence (his tenure as Mayor of London and that abject leadership bid last year), Boris Johnson probably does have the chutzpah to sell a climbdown over free movement and the single market if he were carried to Downing Street by acclamation, but I suspect most Tory MPs despise him as an opportunist and would rather promote anyone else, though maybe not Michael Gove. A true believer coup, perhaps by David Davis, is a possibility, though I get the sense that most leavers would prefer May to stay, knowing full well that she will stick to the job if she can, while the "releavers" that constitute the majority of Tory MPs would be happy to thwart Davis after his cavalier performance at the despatch box over the last year. When she called this election, May said she had a sense of the country coming together. In fact, the over-riding sense now is of the Conservative and Unionist Party coming apart at the seams. Happy days.


  1. Ben Philliskirk11 June 2017 at 18:29

    I think Labour should make it clear that they will be happy to facilitate a quick Brexit in parliament as long as certain conditions are met.

    This will benefit them as it should dampen down much of the nationalist context that has dominated UK politics recently, and concentrate the focus on material interests that served Labour well on Thursday. In addition, it might impress leavers who are more bothered about mere identity rather than immigration/xenophobia, and shows Labour as decisive and no-nonsense, compared with the dithering Tories. Should the Tories decline the offer, it will further enable Labour to portray them as using Brexit merely as a narrow party interest and/or demonstrate that they have a hard-right agenda that cares little for 'national unity'.

    1. Approaching this as a problem of negotiation (we don't need any formal game theory, just familiarity with end of 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'), Labour should do nothing initially beyond repeat its previous position: Brexit will happen, jobs are paramount, we'll protect existing rights etc.

      The government is now in a weak position so it makes sense to let May & co to make the first move. Labour can then critique the Tories. If it makes an unconditional offer first, it will allow the Tories to shift the media agenda to a critique of Labour's position.

      The first rule of the Mexican Standoff is always move second.

      The objective has got to be not only a better Brexit, in terms of less self-harm and better relations with the EU thereafter, but a clear public perception that Labour both "saved" Brexit and made it workable. In other words, a display of executive competence in stark contrast to the recklessness and delusion of the Tories.

      The second rule of the Mexican Standoff is always disarm the third shooter (whom the first shooter will target) in advance.

      In the context of Brexit, this means getting up-front agreement behind the scenes with the EU27. This shouldn't prove difficult. Ironically, this would be a job tailor-made for Peter Mandelson.

  2. Hasn't John McDonnell explicitly stated today that labour will pull out of the single market? Is this part of game theory/Mexican standoff?

    1. The official line is to "retain the benefits of the single market & customs union", which means de jure withdrawal but de facto preservation. McDonnell is keeping to this line.

    2. So a Swiss-type arrangement in other words?

    3. That's certainly within the bounds of possibility.

  3. Will the EU go for this? And what if free movement?

    1. The EU is happy to make custom deals with individual non-EU states so long as costs balance benefits & the latter fall short of those enjoyed by full members - see Norway, Switzerland, Turkey.

      The Tory dilemma is the ultras' refusal to accept any significant costs, hence the "no deal is better than a bad deal" mantra has replaced "having cake and eating it". Labour are much better placed to do a deal than the Tories.

      As far as freedom of movement is concerned, I suspect they'll focus on securing existing EU citizen & UK expat rights while fudging the ongoing rules (i.e. more conditionality but in practice accepting the principle of FoM).