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Monday, 27 February 2017

Swingtime

One way of looking at the current political landscape is in terms of the broad division between progressive and conservative forces, which we can call "left" and "right" for shorthand. If we classify the Liberal Democrats (and their previous incarnations in the SDP and old Liberal party), along with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein, SDLP and the Greens, as on the progressive wing (I know, but bear with me), then the left has enjoyed a majority of the popular vote in general elections since the mid-60s. Even before this, the right rarely got over 50% during the twentieth century, the exceptions being the Salisbury administration of 1900 and the National governments of 1931 and 1935 (which depended on Labour and Liberal defectors). This run came to an end in 2015 when the right enjoyed a majority through the combination of the Tories, UKIP and the two Northern Irish unionist parties. The decisive shift was not Labour voters attracted to the Kippers but LibDem voters who deserted to the Tories after 5 years of coalition government.

That desertion produced a Tory majority which in turn obliged David Cameron to cede a referendum on the EU to placate his Europhobic right-wing. Though Cameron's decision has been cast as a catastrophic error by some Conservatives, it may paradoxically have created the conditions for electoral dominance by the Tories for the foreseeable future, though I doubt Theresa May will be thanking him personally. The original error was the decision of Nick Clegg to enter into coalition with the Tories in 2010, both because it led indirectly to Brexit and because it revealed that many LibDem voters are actually more inclined to a conservative than a progressive position. This means that the crude left-right distinction outlined above is somewhat misleading, however it also reflects the fact that voting is often a matter of virtue-signalling, with some small-c conservatives choosing to identify as mild progressives (or even pose as radicals by voting Green) essentially for reasons of self-esteem. Likewise, communitarians who align with Labour on tax and public services may vote Conservative for reasons of "stability".

This realignment of the electorate has been strengthened by May's decision to pursue a hard Brexit. Though the LibDems and their media supporters have claimed that the party is on its way back after its victory in the Richmond by-election, it remains stuck at around 10% in the polls, which is half the figure it was consistently achieving up to 2010. This is despite its opposition to the Article 50 bill and the fact that Labour isn't competing to be the HQ of the remainer irreconcilables. Barely a fifth of the 48% constituency that voted remain seem inclined to throw in their lot with Tim Farron & co. To put it another way, half of the traditional LibDem vote appears to have been lost to the right - mainly to the Conservatives but some to UKIP - or to abstention. The inevitable decline of UKIP post-referendum may see some voters shifting back to the LibDems, but it is hard to believe this will be a significant number. Most Kippers are likely to switch to the Tories or give up voting, with the real hardcore nutters splintering into various far-right groupuscules .

What centrist (and some left) pundits appear unwilling to countenance is that the 48% does not constitute an election-winning progressive base. A significant number of remainers were Conservative voters who, like their MPs, now appear to be either reconciled to the inescapability of a hard Brexit or are hoping for a fudge to limit the damage. Either way, there is no evidence to suggest they could be won over to a wider progressive platform, just as it was always na├»ve in the past to imagine that Tory "wets" were somehow less than Tory. True-blue remainers aren't going to vote Labour, come what may. For this reason, the belief that a Labour party sans Corbyn could somehow stop Brexit in its tracks is for the birds. Labour might well improve in the polls with a new leader and a more supportive centrist media, but this would largely represent the return of disillusioned supporters (mostly abstainers rather than deserters to UKIP) and would probably do no more than restore the party to the 35% it achieved under Ed Miliband. That's necessary but it isn't sufficient.


The bottom line is that the shift of 10% of the electorate away from the LibDems (and mostly to the Conservatives) after 2010 is likely to be the dominant factor in shaping politics for the remainder of the decade and quite possibly beyond. Labour must hope that most UKIP supporters lapse into abstention rather than commit to the Tories, and to that end the by-election victory in Stoke may prove to be historically pivotal by accelerating UKIP's decay. This is more likely than the idea that the remaining progressive half of the LibDem vote can be won over by a shift to the centre, which would require the Liberal Democrat party to be pretty much squeezed out of existence. The LibDems may be able to tempt back those voters that deserted them after 2010 for the Tories in future by-elections and local council elections, but probably not in general elections. Equally, the remaining 10% of LibDem voters are probably pretty hardcore, so the "swayables" that Labour might poach may amount to little more than 2 or 3%. That's not insignificant, but with the 35% strategy dead and the new target for government probably around 40%, Labour will need more than ex-LibDems votes to win a majority.

Like it or not, the Labour Party has to win over soft Conservative voters, which means a combination of those 2010 vintage ex-LibDems and more traditional swing voters who can be appealed to on pragmatic grounds. This doesn't mean a return to centrism and "Worcester woman" but a pitch that paints the Tories as irresponsible gamblers and incompetents who cannot be trusted to look after the interests of the people. In other words, an appeal to self-esteem and stability. This means a conscious revival of social democratic policies that address voter concerns over insecurity (i.e. against Blairite neoliberalism as much as Tory neoliberalism), over social cohesion (which means shifting the debate from immigration to inequality), and over economic regeneration (which means investment over austerity). What it doesn't mean is the distraction of Blue Labour, with all its overtones of sectarianism, which would allow the Tories to shift the political debate towards patriotism and the evils of multiculturalism and political correctness. Labour needs to revive an inclusive British identity and a positive internationalism in contrast to the Tories' increasingly isolated English chauvinism.

Ironic though it may sound after the years of Blairite managerialism, Labour needs to define itself as a party capable of better managing the state in the interests of everybody while highlighting the Tory government's preferential treatment of vested interests as it negotiates with the EU27 (the City, global capital, the rich). This doesn't mean being cautious, because Brexit will call for radical measures and new ideas. Nor does it mean being nostalgic: the "spirit of '45" can provide some mood music, but "socialism in one country" isn't feasible any longer. It probably does mean a new leader simply because Corbyn cannot project sufficient managerial competence. Labour needs to present a "people's Brexit" in opposition to whatever hot mess the Tories produce. Such a strategy also stands a better chance of rebuilding Labour in Scotland, which is vital to achieving a governing majority. The Scots are unlikely to double-down on risk and back independence in the event of a hard Brexit, unless the May government is mad enough to push them into a corner, which could allow Labour to prosper by positioning itself between the "fundamentalisms" of the SNP and the Tories.

The obvious risk is that Theresa May might achieve sufficient compromises with the EU27 to soften Brexit, so narrowing the ground between the Tory and Labour positions. This strikes me as unlikely both because the Tory right will limit her room for manoeuvre and because the compromises will likely reflect unpopular preferences - e.g. for the City. There is also little in the Prime Minister's history to suggest she has the personal charm or cunning to sway the EU Council of Ministers. The flip-side of this is that she might so alienate the EU27 that the potential for Brexit to be moderated after 2020 by an incoming Labour government would disappear. Indeed, it might be in her interest to burn all the bridges, insisting that making a success of a Tory-designed Brexit was the only option, much as she has sought to close off alternative options since she ran for party leader. To mitigate this, Labour needs a credible alternative Brexit that can command majority support. The final irony of Brexit is that it may return us to a political duopoly and the decisive role of the swing voter.

26 comments:

  1. Can you see the labour party jettisoning Corbyn, installing a left leaning replacement and creating a coherent people's brexit before the next general election? Historical precedents suggest not.

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    1. We're in strange times because of Brexit, so I wouldn't rule anything out. I think we'll have a better sense of Corbyn's future after the Autumn conference.

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  2. Who would you see as a credible (to the membership and enough of the plp) replacement?

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    1. I can pretty much guarantee that anybody acceptable to the membership will not be "credible" for the PLP.

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    2. Hence the importance of the % threshold for getting on the ballot?

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    3. There's no obvious candidate, so it will come down to a) who shines over the coming months and b) the McDonnell amendment.

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    4. Rebecca Long Bailey is reputedly the chosen one for the medium to long term. Whether she can carry that burden and provide any resistance to the MSM - we will see. Presumably her profile will be inched upwards over the coming months.

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    5. Any particular reason why she had been singled out? Is Lewis totally out of favour then?

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    6. Just reading the Twitter runes. Lewis seems to have fallen down the rankings.

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  3. "... it revealed that many LibDem voters are actually more inclined to a conservative than a progressive position."

    IIUC, historically this has long been the case. The Liberal bastions in the South West have been far more liberal or patronage Tory than any shade of radical.

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  4. "... the party has to win over soft Conservative voters ..."

    Am I correct that you're thinking of the Sarah Woolastons of this world, or rather the type that she represents?

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    1. No, swing voters who opted for Tories in 2015 and in opinion polls since June. May well have voted Labour in 2005.

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  5. ""socialism in one country" isn't feasible any longer"

    Then those that realise they are running a national government for the betterment of the people of the UK will defeat Labour. We've had a vote that puts sovereignty and immigration control at the top of the list.

    This is Labour's problem all the way down the line. Far too obsessed with taxing people when you simply don't need to. Far too attached to people overseas and large corporations when neither vote. Far too obsessed with internationalism when you are bidding for a national government.

    The focus is all wrong.

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    1. You may have misunderstood my use of quotation marks. I'm not ruling out socialism but autarky. You'll note that leavers are insisting we can do trade deals with all and sundry, not that we'll isolate our economy.

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  6. Herbie Kills Children28 February 2017 at 17:30

    If Corbyn goes the Labour party is finished forever. They should then just call it Tory Max or Tory Lite or I can’t believe it isn’t Tory or Sugar free Tory, anything but labour! When Corbyn goes the PLP will ensure a Tory is installed as the next leader.

    I think it is a huge assumption to say Labour voters represent the progressive side of politics. All I can say is you need to get out more! I would say Corbyn represents a progressive platform but look how well that is going. Even people who vote for Labour under Corbyn are not necessarily progressive as a 5 minute conversation with them would seen make clear. On that note...

    “but a pitch that paints the Tories as irresponsible gamblers and incompetents who cannot be trusted to look after the interests of the people”

    The working class has 2 basic demands, 1) Attack Immigrants and 2) attack the poor and vulnerable.

    They also have one basic economic outlook; don’t upset the rich because they might not invest in the nation.

    These are not the foundations of a flourishing social democracy.

    The progressives need to stick to their principles and let the people have their demands. Capitulating to the Tories was the hallmark of Blairism. Blairism was the Toryfication of the Labour party. I just don’t see the point of a project like that when people can just have the real thing. Let us continually develop our principles and policies but let us never capitulate, oh, and let us be happy in opposition. Modernity may like to present politics as a horse race where every 4 years or so you win or you lose but if we look at history this isn’t what it should be. The progressive struggle is not a horse race.

    Time to stop dancing to their tune!

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    1. "The working class has 2 basic demands, 1) Attack Immigrants and 2) attack the poor and vulnerable."

      Have you been reading the Guardian?

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    2. Herbie Kills Children28 February 2017 at 20:35

      I stopped reading the Guardian some years ago. I am basing that comment on being on the ground so to speak.

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    3. Herbie Kills Children28 February 2017 at 20:51

      3 reasons why i stopped reading it,

      1) They started taking a Pro Israeli line
      2) Charlie Brooker left
      3) They gave positive reviews to Girls Aloud albums. I mean, what the fuck is all that about!

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  7. As ever events could have a major effect on the 2020 election. Chancellor Hammond appears committed to continued austerity. Trump or Congress could fail to provide the US economy with a significant fiscal stimulus. Either could lead to recession just in time for 2020.

    Brexit would be much easier in some kind of general EU realignment. Can Italy remain in the Eurozone till 2020?

    If someone as right wing as St Theresa of May can be prime minister then someone as left wing as Jeremy Corbyn can serve.

    My advice to Corbyn would be stop wearing hats and consider the facial hair.

    If Corbyn were to become prime minster he would have more facial hair than any PM since Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. If Corbyn could be convinced to trim it back to a moustache progressive chances could be improved.

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    1. Herbie Kills Children28 February 2017 at 20:37

      "If someone as right wing as St Theresa of May can be prime minister then someone as left wing as Jeremy Corbyn can serve"

      You are not factoring in the adverse affect of the right wing media here. So this is logically incorrect.

      "Chancellor Hammond appears committed to continued austerity"

      Someone needs to explain to me how that as in any way upset the Tory apple cart? In fact austerity delivers on one of the 2 major demands of the working class, namely it hammers the poor and vulnerable.

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    2. Mr Kills Children

      I have a spreadsheet and some algorithms that rank politicians on a left right, reactionary progressive spectrum. St Theresa of May ranks at -75.6 and Jeremy Corbyn is at 74.32 (the more negative the more right wing). The combined score is therefore -1.28 close enough to zero given the inevitable inaccuracies of my system. My original statement is therefore mathematically correct. You may have a point logically, I will have to get some books out of the library and get back to you.

      The right wing press are of course are agin Corbyn. If ,admittedly unlikely, events pan out and Corbyn becomes popular the right wing press may come round. They can't be seen to be against something or someone popular for long because it will cost them money. Modelling the effects of the right wing press mathematically is tricky, they are second order effects with feedback and feedforward elements. I would need a licence for Matlab to explore this fully and currently sadly funds do not allow.

      It's entirely possible that the Tory party can crash the economy so badly by 2020 that almost anyone standing in a civilised fashion for Labour will be elected. Had George Osborne stuck to his guns and balanced the budget by 2015 we would now be in a serious recession.

      A leaflet from 1983. A young left wing barrister decides to forgo a lucrative career at the bar and instead is elected as a fresh Labour MP. There are two important points about the leaflet. Firstly the 1983 platform may only need a few tweaks to be a winning platform in 2020. Secondly the candidate is clean shaven.

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  8. I feel that the concept of Left acceptance of Brexit is mistaken.

    The major problem facing the Labour Party is that Brexit has created a political paralysis and is dominating the national political landscape to the exclusion of other issues. This started last June and is likely to continue until the process is finally completed. As such, for Labour not to oppose it outright is to cede an awful lot of ground to the government in the medium term. Concentrating on the specifics of issues such as access to the single market, worker's rights, industrial policy, and freedom of movement will not get Labour far because the Tories will bluff their way out by insisting that they can't show their cards for fear of ruining negotiations, will state that they will 'get the best deal for Britain', or will simply deny that there will be any change where change might be unpopular.

    By the time of the 2020 election the effects of Brexit are unlikely to be crystal-clear, and on issues like manufacturing the Tories might be able to bribe important companies not to leave the UK in the short-term. As a result, they are unlikely to be punished at that time, and whatever form a Labour Brexit policy takes is unlikely to gain any credit then or later.

    In the current volatile situation Labour would do well to remember the SNP. They lost the referendum but 'won' the election. I think a clear commitment to opposing Brexit would have been a better, as well as more principled, strategy.

    As it is, with the state of the Labour Party at present, the chances of establishing a coherent Labour Brexit policy are approximately zero. (Though the same could probably be said about a remain policy as well!)

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    1. I think we have to distinguish between a left acceptance of the referendum result and a left acceptance of Brexit.

      The ballot paper asked "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?". There is nothing in that about the specifics of a future relationship with the EU, let alone anything to do with trade or immigration. So, accepting the referendum result does not limit Labour's ability to contest the government's interpretation of the mandate or their handling of negotiations with the EU27.

      Labour acknowledging the legitimacy of the referendum does not cede any ground to the government, because that legitimacy is incontestable: Parliament voted to hold the referendum and we got a clear result, like it or not. Opposing Brexit outright - which essentially means refusing to accept the result - would allow the government to dismiss all criticism, no matter how valid, as "against the will of the people".

      We can't know what situation we will be in come 2020, but Labour will only be able to prosper from a rejection of Brexit (which by that time would probably mean a commitment to re-apply for membership of the EU) if there has been a major shift in public sentiment. That implies a starkly negative outcome to the negotiations that cannot be finessed by the government as positive or even neutral.

      In other words, a catastrophe that would become apparent before the end of the 2-year negotiation period. However, if the game really were up, there is a strong possibility that it would produce a Tory coup committed to the revocation of the Article 50 notification before March 2019 (no doubt Blair and others would be calling for a National Government). That would marginalise Labour regardless of its stance.

      Labour's realistic route to power in 2020 depends on the outcome being bad enough to shift sentiment decisively (encouraging enough Tory voters to switch or at least abstain), but not so bad as to trigger a Tory coup and volte-face in 2019. Given that Brexit will then be a done deal by 2020 (i.e. non-revocable), Labour has to offer an alternative Brexit (which may or may not involve re-accession to the EU at a future date) or face electoral irrelevance.

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    2. The problem is that all the arguments against a 'hard' Brexit are in effect arguments against leaving the EU at all, and short-term electoralism will prompt an increasing number of Labour politicians to advocate harmful measures restricting freedom of movement and the single market.

      I fear you are too cynical on this issue, and the sheer unpredictability of events could lead to Labour falling further into the morass of nationalism while reaping no benefits from it.

      Socialists would not automatically accept the results of a referendum on other issues, and I don't see why they should on such an important one as this.

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    3. I agree that the best argument against a hard Brexit is to not leave the EU, which is why I voted remain last June, but that may not be an option come 2020 if Article 50 is invoked this year and negotiations are not extended by mutual agreement.

      Short of a catastrophe emerging by 2019, the only hope of either reversing or mitigating Brexit depends on Labour winning the next General Election in 2020. My view isn't cynical so much as pragmatic: what strategy stands the best chance of securing a Labour government?

      Once we are out, an electoral majority will probably depend on a re-negotiated entry (or some form of association at least) rather than a simple reversion to status quo ante. That does not commit Labour to a more nationalist position but actually to a more internationalist one than the Tories will likely offer.

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    4. Herbie Kills Children1 March 2017 at 18:55

      “The ballot paper asked "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?".”

      And for many people this was enough. The specifics are irrelevant because most people who voted remain couldn’t get past immigration, or whatever else the right wing media has been bleating about ad nausea for what seems like time immemorial! Incidentally those that voted remain didn’t go far beyond, well it probably is for the best to remain.

      “There is nothing in that about the specifics of a future relationship with the EU, let alone anything to do with trade or immigration”

      And this begs the question why didn’t anyone raise this obvious anomaly before the vote! I find it staggering but symptomatic of the debasement of culture that such a momentous vote was debated on such narrow and idiotic lines.

      The EU vote simply showed how far the debasement of culture had gone, which to anyone on the ground and not in the left ivory tower could have told you!

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