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.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

On Tactical Voting

French presidential elections under the Fifth Republic have always been invested with a greater significance than they perhaps deserve, largely as a result of the theatrical style pioneered by Charles de Gaulle. The current election, whose first round of voting took place today, has raised the bar for hyperbole because of the darkness versus light framing of a runoff between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Both sides have seen value in presenting the election as part of the a la mode populist/nationalist surge that produced Brexit and Trump, and even as an existential threat to the EU (neither is true: the FN is an old malignancy and there is no anti-EU majority in France). The election is certainly unusual in that neither of France's two main parties will have a candidate in the second round, but this doesn't mean that the final result will be a departure from political orthodoxy. Both Hamon and Fillon were quick to endorse Macron tonight. While Le Pen is likely to do better than her father did in 2002, and will certainly present her opponent as a creature of the establishment, there are enough votes from those who consider the FN anathema to see Macron to the Élysée Palace. In France, tactical voting allows the dominant parties to be punished, but it rarely produces an upset and is most effective in defending the centre. There is a lesson here for the British.

In a system based on first past the post elections in single-member constituencies, such as the UK, all parties are necessarily coalitions of convenience, forged outside of parliament and in advance of an election. This is why electoral pacts are non-existent outside Northern Ireland (where Labour and the Tories do not stand) and why coalitions are routinely ruled out pre-vote. This means that substantive debate over policy takes place outside parliament within the parties, which can easily be interpreted as discord (see the history of Labour). Parties on the left tend to be more honest about this, emphasising democratic debate and plurality, while parties on the right tend to frame disagreements more as matters of personality. For reasons of entertainment as much as partisan bias, the media tend to present this as bloody division on the one hand and the head-butting of alpha-males and females on the other. The emphasis on personal rivalry during the Blair-Brown years was indicative of the political shift to the centre, while the current emphasis on tribal warfare reflects the revival of policy disagreement within the Labour Party (given that Corbyn has only advanced mild social democracy so far, this framing is largely an anticipation and thus a warning to the left).

In systems based on proportional representation, such as The Netherlands, there is an incentive for parties to sacrifice a degree of scale for policy unanimity outside parliament, as effective coalitions can usually be made post-election, hence the profusion of parties with often minor differences or parochial concerns. This means there is often a greater divide between the purity of political theory outside parliament and the messy reality of the compromises required to form coalitions within it, which can lead to voter cynicism. This arises not because the electorate is naïve, and simply doesn't understand the exigencies of coalition formation, but because they note how cheaply smaller parties tend sell their support. We saw this in a rare UK context during the 2010-15 coalition, in which the Lib Dems made costly concessions over student fees and austerity for trivial gains (beyond the abject failure of the PR referendum, it is hard to even remember what these were). What Nick Clegg's tenure as Deputy Prime Minister proved was that the Lib Dems were incapable of supporting coalition as a party, rather than as an opportunistic bloc of MPs, showing how much they had become institutionalised by FPTP (the Lib Dems have little real social presence - compare and contrast with Labour's union hinterland or the Tories social networks - hence they are almost wholly defined by the electoral system).

The French political system is a hybrid because of two-round voting. The PR-like nature of the first round encourages looser party formations and independents, while the forced FPTP of the second round consolidates the leading parties. In the current French National Assembly, 82% of the seats are held by the dominant parties of the centre-left and centre-right, the Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains (for comparison, Labour and the Conservatives currently hold 86% of the seats in the House of Commons). The French Presidential election has an inbuilt bias towards a centrist, but one that allows for the emergence of a non-party affiliated national saviour "above the fray", a la Macron. You can think of this as an institutional memory of de Gaulle. In practice, a candidate not backed by one of the big two is rare (the centrist Valery Giscard d'Estaing was the last real independent winner in 1974, benefiting from partial support by the fragmented Gaullists on the right). While a "non-establishment" candidate can make it to the second round, as Jean-Marie Le Pen famously did in 2002, the odds are stacked against them unless they can command significant support among those who voted for the defeated centrist party candidate(s) in the first round.

A single-round FPTP system gives rise to a duopoly, with other parties being either special interest groups (e.g. regionalists, such as the SNP) or essentially "none of the above" repositories (e.g. the Lib Dems rely on the votes of truculent reactionaries as much as the bien-pensants, which became evident in the EU referendum). This prompts the major parties to face towards the centre because that is where the pivotal votes tend to be. The margins are no less populated but they tend to be less biddable (Theresa May's unashamed grab for UKIP voters now is an exception that proves the rule). This is reinforced by the inertia of the state and para-state apparatus: the civil service, the BBC, think-tanks etc. A PR system produces a typical left-right balance, but with two centres of gravity rather than one. This means that the centre parties face outwards but instinctively seek to back towards each other as they moderate the margins, hence they can become near-indistinguishable. They do not, however, formally merge, though they may enter a "grand coalition" on occasion, as in Germany. This is because their identity is often formed in opposition to a more radical party (or radical independents) on their flank as much as the other centre party.

Though continental social democratic parties in the postwar era defined themselves against communists as much as conservatives, in practice the presence of the communists encouraged the centre-left to adopt more radical policies. The march of social democratic parties towards the centre in the 80s and 90s was a product not just of deindustrialisation and financialisation  but also of the disappearance of an organised leftwing goad as the communist parties folded and the radical left fragmented. In other words, there was a superstructural dynamic as much as a change in the material base. This was particularly evident in those countries with historically large communist parties, such as France and Italy. The ideological distance traversed by Francois Mitterand between 1981 and 1995 was much greater than the gap between Michael Foot and Tony Blair. This shift to the centre paradoxically made party formations less stable as space opened up not only at the left margin but in the area vacated by the social democrats. PR encourages dissenters within the leading parties to break away and create their own formations, hence the appearance of "real left" parties since the 90s adopting radical rhetoric in combination with mild social democratic policies (in the French context, Melenchon isn't that radical - much of what he offers is a left-Gaullism - while Hamon is trying to upgrade social democracy - e.g. his interest in a basic income).

The oddity of this year's presidential election was the emergence of two refugees from the centre-left party, Macron and Melenchon, reflecting the eclipse of the PS under Francois Hollande, combined with a weak centre-right that has opportunistically normalised the FN agenda. In other words, the two dominant parties are intellectually bankrupt (Hamon's attempted resuscitation of the PS came too late in the day), but they remain institutionally strong and there is little prospect of the duopoly losing its grip on the National Assembly. The PS will now fall in line behind Macron for the presidency but will hope that the prospect of a more congenial if critical cohabitation will revive its fortunes in the legislative elections in June. Just as the two-round system has limited the FN to only two deputies, so En Marche!, which has even less of a social infrastructure, will struggle to win seats (you need to beat one of the big two in the first round and then hoover up their voters in the second). Les Républicains are likely to indulge in a bloodbath following the ill-starred candidacy of Fillon, which might ironically aid the PS recovery.

Liberalism has no party loyalty. It will advance through splits, entryism, or as a "transpartisan" movement. It will even claim to be a populist reaction against the discredited establishment, as En Marche! has. The strategy it chooses will reflect the opportunities and constraints of the electoral system. In the UK, liberalism remains broken, a condition it is still in denial about and which it instead projects onto Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party. It is this weakness, rather than Labour's poor polling alone, that has prompted Theresa May to call a general election and seek what is in effect plebiscitary approval for an elective dictatorship. At any other time she would expect liberals to rally around Labour as the only way of limiting the power of Number 10. Instead they are calling for tactical voting in support of anti-Hard Brexit MPs (given that many pro-remain MPs flipped their views, this is heroically naïve), which can only fragment the opposition. Liberals who moan about the "dispiriting choice" are ignoring what is at stake - our ability to restrain the executive - and thus giving May a free pass. The threat to liberty is in London, not Paris.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Harder They Come

Like the EU referendum before it, this general election has been called because of pressures within the Conservative Party. The Tories' current opinion poll lead is necessary to the decision, just as polls predicting a remain victory were to Cameron's, but this is less opportunism by May, a politician not noted for risk-taking, than necessity born of vulnerability. I had assumed the window of opportunity for the Prime Minister to call an early general election would close with the invocation of Article 50. Once the deed was done, momentum would take over and the government would have a relatively free hand till 2019. Two things have altered this situation. First, the "hardness" of the government's stance has increased the likelihood of a rebellion by centrist Tories, other than Kenneth Clarke, while the shrill attitude of the Brexit "ultras", reflected in the tabloid press, has limited Theresa May's room for manoeuvre. Circumstances have pulled the Conservative Party in opposite directions. Second, once it became clear that the "divorce terms" would take up most of the 24-month negotiation period, the danger of a 2020 general election falling at a sensitive moment - the UK out of the EU, with a costly settlement and nothing to show in respect of a trade deal - became too great to discount.

With a small Commons majority of 16 (which could conceivably have become even smaller if the investigations into 2015 election fraud led to by-election defeats in Tory seats), the May government cannot afford the risk of even a modest-scale backbench rebellion, which means today's announcement is an admission that the strategy of side-lining the Commons cannot hold without a larger majority that could absorb the strain of dissent. Contrary to her claims about a troublesome opposition, the prime minister's chief fear is that she might be undermined by her own side. This may mean she anticipates compromises with the EU27 that are likely to prompt a rebellion by the ultras, or perhaps a harsher outcome that would be likely to prompt rebellion by centrists (a mixture of the two is quite possible). That she wants the election conducted during the "phoney war" period, before substantive negotiations with the EU27 get underway, indicates that she seeks not only popular confirmation of her authority as Prime Minister but a carte blanche as regards the progress of Brexit. Don't expect much in the way of a domestic manifesto.

The aim of the election is therefore to grow the number of loyalist Tory MPs to the point where she can command a majority regardless of dissent at the margins. The risk is that a new intake might include more potential rebels, so we may see bloody selection battles in certain constituencies with candidates of strong principle being marginalised by loyalists (there is clearly no way back for Douglas Carswell). Apart from the irony of selection battles turning out to be more significant in the Conservative Party than Labour, this also means that the idea of personal loyalty to the party leader is becoming paramount. What we are witnessing is not merely an authoritarian turn in style, which could be attributed to the personality of the Prime Minister, but the institutional evolution of a presidential and plebiscitary system. While you could find hints of this in the behaviour of previous British PMs, notably Thatcher and Blair, these were expressions of ego rather than political dynamics, and they tended to prompt scorn.

Margaret Thatcher may have been an instinctive authoritarian who divided the world into "them" and "us", but she went too far when she equated loyalty to herself with loyalty to the party, prompting her defenestration. May has gone further and equated herself with the "national interest". Given her previous position on the EU, this is chutzpah of Vicar of Bray proportions. 2017 will be the first general election fought on the basis that we should willingly hand authority to an individual to do with as she sees fit: "Brexit means whatever I say it means".  Previous prime minister's have fought for re-election on the slogan, "Give me the tools to finish the job", but at least we had a reasonable idea of what they meant by that "job". The often sphinx-like May has been reluctant to allow herself to be pinned down, has resorted to pious platitudes when asked to articulate a vision, and has shown a prickly anger towards any who have questioned her competence or sincerity.

We assume that dictatorship presupposes charisma, the ability to sway the crowd, but a querulous, narrow-minded snob is just as likely to lead us down that path. Dictatorship is usually a product of the bureaucracy of executive government rejecting restraint, not a populist insurgency. While Theresa May isn't as advanced along the road of elective dictatorship as Viktor Orban or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, she has started to emulate them stylistically with her claims that the nation is uniting behind her and that her personal values are those of the nation as a whole. It is a short step to then claim that you embody the will of the people, or at least smile graciously as your epigones shout it in the press. Many have noted the negative impact that Brexit is having on the calibre of government, from hogging the legislative bandwidth to disrupting the civil service, but the more worrying impact is on the structure of government, notably the further centralisation of power in Number 10 and the disregard for Parliamentary oversight.

Key to an increased Tory majority will be getting the stay-at-homes who drifted away after 1997 but returned for the referendum to turn out again. This means making the general election a de facto second referendum, but without suggesting that Brexit can be reversed. In other words, scream if you want to go faster. The danger is that some of these backwoods reactionaries may believe the job already done, and could either turn their attention to other domestic issues, which could help Labour, or lapse back into abstention. UKIP will probably be battered, but the assumption that their votes will largely head to the Tories may prove ill-founded. Again, what will matter is the number that choose abstention, particularly in marginals. The LibDems are predictably chipper, on the grounds that the only way is up from their near-death experience in 2015, but a Brexit-flavoured election will not help them recover seats in the South West that voted leave, while there are too few seats like Richmond-on-Thames to provide a remainer surge.

Though most pundits are busy writing-off Labour, it is worth noting a few ironies that may lead to them performing better than expected. The anti-Corbyn crowd in the PLP know that disloyalty doesn't win votes in a general election, so they will have to get behind the party manifesto if not the leader. The media will still stir and goad, but the limited air-time accorded Labour will inevitably shift away from plots to policies, simply because the usual suspects will not be able to oblige. Parliament will be dissolved on the 3rd of May, the day before the local council elections, which means that the raft of policies outlined recently for that campaign, from free school meals to a £10 minimum wage, will provide a solid base for the general election manifesto. These policies are also likely to get more of an airing as the media treat the council elections as an undercard to the Parliamentary election, rather than just the latest chapter in the Corbyn story (no matter how bad the result in May is, the leader isn't going to change before the June poll).

Given that Theresa May clearly isn't a gambler, it is hard to believe that the result in June will deliver anything other than an increased Tory majority, though it could well be smaller than the 100+ seats that current opinion polling suggests. In terms of protecting her back, she probably needs a buffer of at least 50 MPs, so a relatively poor result for the Conservative Party, i.e. one in which they take fewer than 30 seats from Labour, would still be enough to consolidate May's position and provide her with sufficient assurance to allow her to trim the sails of the good ship Brexit as she sees fit. Of course, this doesn't rule out the prospect of a spectacular cock-up between now and 2022 that might make such calculations redundant, but it also doesn't rule out the possibility of May carrying out an executive coup if she thinks the ship is heading for the rocks. A night of the long knives, in which Messrs Davis, Johnson and Fox are sacrificed, would cement her authority, and I suspect that maintaining authority is ultimately the prime directive for this prime minister.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Banged Up

Since Plato's ship, means of transport have provided a wealth of metaphors for society in general and politics in particular. They create a temporary community of interest (even the lone motorist is sharing a road), engaged in a progressive project (getting from A to B, even if only to return once more to A) and obliged to submit to the authority of a leader (the captain, the pilot, the great helmsman). If the ship was the pre-eminent metaphor from the ancient world to early modern times (the ship of state, the ship of fools), the steam locomotive became the emblematic form of transport during the industrial revolution. This was because it represented bourgeois experience and therefore the public sphere of the limited franchise. Few workers could afford (or had need of) train travel until the twentieth century, and then usually only for holidays. Beyond shanks's pony, the bus (or tram, or trolley-car) has always been the proletarian means of transport, even after the decanting of old urban areas to the housing schemes and new towns. In the realm of metaphor, trains are still about class, bureaucracy and frustrated ambition (late again!), which means they have changed little in over a century.

The one means of transport that has been historically volatile both in reality and metaphor is air travel. While trains have remained essentially middle-class, because of the dominance of commuters, and buses have remained largely working class, air travel has evolved from the exclusivity of its prewar silver service days to the low-cost, no-frills experience of the modern era. The result is a more extreme social stratification than even British trains, with the well-appointed limousine of first class a short walk, via the wannabes of business class, to the cattle truck of standard class. This makes the aeroplane a perfect microcosm of society and a theatrical focal point. It also makes it ideal as a site of jeopardy, hence the ever-popular mid-air disaster trope (snakes!, on a plane?) and our morbid fascination with actual crashes. Air travel remains statistically safe, not to mention fast and efficient, but we assume the experience must be stressful and dangerous, hence a passenger forcibly ejected by United Airlines can get away with claiming that the experience was "worse than the fall of Saigon".

Starting in the 1970s, planes also became one of the frontlines for deregulation, particularly in the UK and US, heralding the way for the emergence of new operators like Virgin Atlantic in the 1980s and then a variety of low-cost operators in the 1990s, particularly in Europe. A consequence of this was that air travel was increasingly presented as a laboratory experiment for economic theory, not only in respect of the wonders of competition but also in terms of consumer behaviour and rational choice. The emergence of no-frills flying was attributed to the revealed preference for low-price over comfort, over-booking was rationalised by the calculation that not every buyer will utilise their purchase, and compensation for flight-bumping assumed that a market will clear at the right price. The results of deregulation have been mixed. In reality, flying remains highly regulated, for obvious safety reasons, while the constraints on airports and routes mean that cartels and monopolies are the norm. Service quality, at least for standard class passengers, has steadily declined, while long-haul prices remain stubbornly high. Low-cost travel has been a plus in Europe, however it would be a wrong to claim that this arose from deregulation. The single market and the fall of the Berlin Wall were clearly decisive.

The decanting of Doctor Dao by United Airlines revealed two truths about capitalism. According to economic theory, having failed to get any further volunteers to disembark at the initial offer price of $800, UA should simply have steadily increased the price until someone stuck their hand up (and if more than one person did, drawn straws to pick the winner). In the event, the airline simply decided to enforce the standard terms of their contract (you have no right to fly) and their property rights (a refusal to leave on demand is trespass). UA's claim that Dao was "belligerent" suggests they were framing the problem in these terms from the off. Bumping is usually done on the terminal side of the gate, once the number of checked-in passengers is known, which makes it psychologically easier to handle for all parties. It appears UA caused the problem by deciding to board four of their own staff at the last moment (so the flight wasn't technically "oversold"), thereby claiming superior privilege. This would be like a hotelier kicking you out of your room because his mother-in-law had turned up unexpectedly.

This highlights the first truth about capitalism. Corporations don't instinctively think in terms of markets and trade-offs, they first and foremost think in terms of property rights. Much of the outrage in this case arises from a similar instinct in the public mind. We assume that a purchased ticket is a form of property, not simply because we don't read the contractual small print, but because we treat it as a token of value, like cash, rather than a permission that can be rescinded. That UA should have then misdirected Doctor Dao's luggage - his own property - is an irony apparently lost on the company's critics. The Dao case, even if it is settled out of court, is likely to be extensively written about as a contest of rights, but it is unlikely to lead to any change in industry practice or the law. This is because all parties see property rights as sacrosanct and they accept that "reasonable and proportionate" force (or resistance) is legitimate in defence of those rights. The questions arising concern whether the airline should have incurred a greater cost up-front in terms of passenger compensation and whether the force used was justified.

The second truth is that capitalism depends on the threat (and often routine execution) of violence, but this vignette of brutality is unlikely to prompt calls for anything other than a better capitalism, which is another way of saying a capitalism that is less overtly violent, not one that eschews violence altogether. Predictably, other airlines have trolled UA by implying that they would have acted more humanely, which is an admission that they consider humanity a service differentiator rather than a non-negotiable expectation. The implicit message to consumers is that they must choose wisely or face the possibility of inhumane treatment. The question of prejudice and stereotyping has been raised, i.e. was Dao picked on because he was Asian, though like the absurd parallel drawn with Rosa Parks, this appears to be nothing more than a deflection from the central issue of violence. The Doctor was in the wrong place at the wrong time, in UA's view, and that alone appears to have been considered justification for his rough handling.

The desire to avoid confronting the importance of violence to capitalism's smooth (or not so smooth) operation means that victim-blaming of the individual easily expands into victim-blaming of all travellers. The trope of air travel as a self-imposed penance for cheap flights was quickly normalised with the emergence of no-frills flying in the 1990s, to the point that Ryanair adopted it as an anti-USP. That the company has since made a volte-face towards customer service is less a Pauline conversion than an admission that maintaining a high media profile necessitates novelty: learning the value of niceness is just another story. I fully expect Michael O'Leary to come up with another PR-friendly wheeze in due course. Though he has long been happy to play the bastard, and now the prodigal, O'Leary would never make the mistake of playing the thug, as United Airlines has. All publicity really isn't good publicity if it reveals what we don't want to acknowledge. We're happy to be accused of being cheapskates by a cheapskate, but we're not happy to be cast as the meat in a corporate sandwich.

What Ryanair's notorious extra charges highlighted was the passenger's dilemma: that a higher price is usually a poor deal because the gain is either small or unreliable. The best in-flight food is inferior to a mediocre restaurant, the in-flight entertainment is worse than your own smartphone, and even a first class bed is no better than an old railway couchette. In other words, capitalism is unable to deliver a better service in air travel so it is obliged to make a virtue of poor quality through an emphasis on low-cost. This development has happened in parallel with the imposition of tighter security post-9/11, with the result that air travel is increasingly viewed as an experience that must be endured rather than enjoyed. Given the many parallels with prison - the security check, the confined space, the lack of exercise - it is no wonder that it is becoming increasingly coercive in style, and no wonder that dissent is met by force. I predict a riot.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Sharing Lunch

The debate over Labour's proposal to introduce free state school meals and pay for it by charging VAT on private school fees has provided a fine example of Alfred Hirschman's rhetoric of reaction. Opponents have talked of perversity (you're subsiding well-off families), futility (it won't raise standards), and jeopardy (some private schools will fold, putting more pressure on the state system). This particular trifecta has put futility out in front, with much chuntering about inconclusive data linking nutrition with learning, showing how the concept of "evidence-based policy-making" has evolved over the last twenty years from at least the pretence of an open mind in the service of reform to the setting of a high bar in the service of conservatism. When someone says "We need better evidence", what they usually mean is "I don't like where your evidence leads", rather than "This is risky - let's get more data to be on the safe side". Unless you believe that a generation of kids might be damaged by over-exposure to fresh fruit, the empirically sound response to Labour's proposal should be "Let's give it a try and see what happens". And unless you believe that "just about managing" families are those scrimping to afford school fees rather than packed lunches, then the political response should be equally supportive.

Since the 1990s, what we might call the rhetoric of liberalism has struggled with the cognitive dissonance of a commitment to both "what works" and "what I believe", with the former becoming increasingly subservient to the latter. This has encouraged a public cynicism that runs like a golden thread from 2002's sexed-up WMD dossier to 2016's EU referendum "project fear". Liberals bemoan the rejection of experts as evidence of a new dark age of anger and irrationality, ignoring the possibility that it reflects a healthy scepticism about the motivations of politicians and their media supporters. This dissonance is most obvious in the field of foreign affairs, where the accumulated evidence of the folly of liberal interventionism (both financial and military) is never allowed to temper the demand for robust action, leading to the near-automatic liberal embrace of auto-da-fés like Trump's recent airstrike in Syria. The dissonance has gradually seeped into domestic affairs as belief-led schemes like welfare reform and austerity have persistently failed to deliver their promised results. Education and health have been the last holdouts against this trend, reflecting their early embrace of targets and measurement in the 90s, but even here the idea that policy should be evidence-led has taken a battering in the face of free schools and the Lansley reforms.

A worry about what works hasn't hindered the government's plan to expand grammar schools, which is convenient given that the evidence suggests they lead to an aggregate worsening of results. I don't recall many Tories fretting about this, or the negative effects that an expansion of grammars might have on the private school sector, let alone worrying that public money was being diverted to the needs of a small minority of mostly middle-class families. The argument that free school meals for all would be "a poor use of public money" takes some nerve given that the zero-VAT-rating of private school fees is already as much of a public subsidy as the zero-rating of food. If we were to rank different items of public expenditure (or subsidy) by their perceived social value then I suspect that feeding kids in the middle of the school day regardless of their home circumstances would be nearer the top of the list than the bottom, particularly when the competition includes HS2 and inheritance tax relief. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson reckons a new royal yacht would command "overwhelming support".

The difficulty of sustaining a principled case against the combination of children and nutrition was made all too clear by Theresa May's decision to ignore the actual proposal and simply claim that Labour would "bankrupt Britain", prsumably through the over-production of tuna pasta bakes. With other Tories no less evasive, this obliged the media to turn to centrists and policy-wonks for a counter-argument. Beyond the chin-stroking and calls for really, really conclusive evidence, this boiled down to framing the proposal as proof of Labour's foolishness (i.e. at a time when the party should be visiting condign punishment on Ken Livingstone's testicles) or neediness (which could perhaps be read as guilt over media spitefulness towards Corbyn). What was interesting about these two broad responses - May's conservative contempt and the centrists' liberal condescension - was that both avoided any mention of community or national interest, which was traditionally the starting point for discussions about education policy. This reflects the contemporary tendency to divide society into irreconcilable and mutually-suspicious blocs, which long-predates the trauma of the EU referendum. In the field of education, this sheep and goats approach has given rise not only to the return of overt selection and manic discipline but even "lunch isolation".

Schools are institutions for socialisation but they also serve as paradigms for a desired social organisation. They are polemical as well as pedagogic. This mixes both an objective anticipation of society's future needs ("everyone must learn to code") and a subjective preference for cultural norms ("school uniforms instil discipline"). As such, there is inevitably a tension between conservative and progressive forces, but it is one in which the balance of power reflects wider social anxieties. The most persistent concern over the course of the last 150 years, since the introduction of compulsory secondary schooling, has been the physical and cognitive fitness of the working class. This reflected evolving assumptions about the future of work, from the need for dextrous industrial workers and soldiers a century ago to the need for literate and numerate office workers today. Policy debates have centred on accommodating privilege within a framework of increasing state and business demand for universal standards. What is significant about the free school meals debate is the rejection of universalism by centrists who in previous decades would have been among its leading advocates.

Cheerleaders for private education may laud the quality of the teaching or a school's flexibility to meet their child's special needs, but their attitude is fundamentally instrumental. They expect to get a social and economic advantage in return for their money. Traditionally, this meant access to university and then either the professions or the executive washroom. As the knowledge economy has given way to the robot apocalypse in popular speculation, many parents now see private schooling and its privileged access to the leading universities as a safeguard in a world of dwindling jobs. In other words, they are betting on a future in which competition and ranking gives way to a brutal cut: you're either in or you're out. The signs of this have been obvious for years, from the middle-class demand that the state subsidise free schools to the evolution of the intern trap. What matters is not individual talent but membership of a privileged group. It should hardly come as a surprise that this has led to nostalgia for older forms of education that embody segregation, from antique uniform styles to grammar schools.

While I think that free school meals for all is a sensible initiative, and adding VAT to private school fees is a moral obligation, I think that Labour might also consider a complementary proposal that combines both universalism and means-testing, if only to wind up centrists. My cunning plan would be to abolish tuition fees and maintenance loans for tertiary education and recoup the cost by setting the state pension age for those with degrees as the default + 5. In effect a deferred working lifetime graduate tax. Tuition fees are currently £9,250 per annum while a maximum maintenance loan for a student away from home and outside London is £8,430. Over 3 years, this would amount to £27,750 and £25,290 respectively, or a grand total of £53,040. Five years of state pension payments is £40,469 (£155.65 per week), while 5 years of NICs for an annual salary of £30,000 is £13,000 (at £50 a week), giving a total revenue to the state of £53,469, which means the proposal pays for itself (I've based the typical graduate salary on a lifetime earnings premium of £100,000 over a UK median salary of £27,600).

These figures are a rough estimate (the earnings premium might shrink further in future plus I'm not taking into account early retirement, incapacity or extra income tax receipts) but the principle is sound, the mechanism transparent (a straight quid pro quo of pension years for education), and it appeals to natural justice (given that most of us distinguish between hard graft and watching Countdown). I reckon 5 years is fair because of differentials in longevity (the better-off, which correlates with degree-educated, tend to live 5 years longer than the less well-off) and the fact that the difference in years of education today for most of those approaching the state pension age includes 2 years in the 6th form (the school leaving age only went up to 18 in 2015). You could argue the differential should be reduced in the future to 3 years, but this won't need to happen before 2064, by which time the state pension age could be well north of 70 and the singularity may have made everybody redundant anyway.

Given that the proposal doesn't seek to change existing levels of university participation, it would be difficult to level a charge of futility beyond a possible future funding gap. This could come about if tuition fees rose to much higher levels, pension values fell significantly, or those pesky robots took all the jobs and abolished NICs. Opponents pushing the possibility of any of these scenarios would open up a much wider argument than the best mechanism for a graduate tax. The most likely perversity would be for the young to turn away from university if they fear the certainty of a delayed state pension more than the possibility of a large lifetime earnings premium. Again, if this were to happen, opponents would have to address the wider issue of a decline in the earnings premium. Some students might deliberately fail their final exams, but this seems unlikely given that the objective for most is the token of a degree. The scheme would jeopardise neither the university sector nor the state pension. Where the proposal might be vulnerable is that it divides society into two groups, graduates and non-graduates, though that is hardly novel. Given the current vogue for more pernicious dichotomies such as "somewheres" and "anywheres", this seems a forgivable flaw.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Last of the Editors

Like most newspapers, The Guardian has had its knickers in a twist over Google and Facebook for years, but it now appears to have settled on a coherent strategy, following the 2015 appointment of Katherine Viner as Editor in Chief, on how to present the disruptive impact of the tech titans as advertising spend has gradually shifted online. While her predecessor, Alan Rusbridger, reflected a more traditional liberal concern with intrusive surveillance by big business in cahoots with the state, most famously in the case of the Snowden revelations, Viner is very much a la mode in liberal circles in emphasising propriety and the inadequacy of the new platforms as gatekeepers. Recent examples include the claim that Google allowed Holocaust deniers to "game" searches and evidence that YouTube has been tacking adverts by respectable brands onto extremist videos. Much of this is overblown, but there is enough substance to the claims to prompt corporate apologies and promises to do better, even if Mark Zuckerberg assuring us that Facebook didn't swing the US Presidential election by facilitating the circulation of "fake news" was a tad self-serving. My question is: what does Viner & co hope to achieve by this?

The belief that Google and Facebook are unwilling to accept that they are publishers with a responsibility for content is as old as they are. In reality, they pretty much stopped claiming to be innocent intermediaries a few years ago as regulatory developments such as the EU's rulings on personal data and their own ventures into news aggregation blurred the lines. They've even found it convenient to occasionally claim publisher rights in respect of free-speech. The real divide isn't between technology and publishing but between business models based on automation and curation. As de facto monopolists, Google and Facebook are not interested in overt discrimination - everyone's money is as good as everyone else's - and they see curation as a costly overhead. In contrast, newspapers have always been class identifiers, both as political instruments and as cultural capital in their own right. For them, discrimination is essential, both in attracting a particular demographic to satisfy advertisers and in the performance of comment and review. One reason broadsheets invest more resources than tabloids in obituaries and letters to the editor is because they are emblematic acts of curation.

Faced with the challenge of the Internet, the initial strategy of many newspapers was to replicate their content online and seek to leverage the capabilities of the new medium, for example through breaking news updates, integrated video and moderated comments. The problem for the traditional press was that the low cost of entry for online publishing introduced by the Web, and then amplified by social media, resulted in an explosion of content. This wasn't simply a case of dumbing-down, as cat videos proved more popular than sober editorials, but of smartening-up as well, as many communities of interest found better quality content from specialist online providers. With advertising space no longer constrained by the medium, and with advertisers more promiscuous (i.e. trying everything, because they still have no idea what works), the inevitable result is falling rates for content providers and a larger slice of the revenue pie for the big Internet platforms. This has led some newspapers to conclude that mass advertising is now a lost cause for print.

The current strategy of many newspapers, particularly broadsheets, is to monetise the brand and its core (i.e. loyal but ageing) readership, either through the exclusivity of a paywall or the inclusivity of a membership scheme. Neither is likely to prove anything more than a palliative, but at least it makes sense to an industry predicated on discrimination. The ultimate logic of this approach would be to limit sales to members and make membership invitation-only - i.e. a controlled subscription model. As the price of technology drops, there may come a point when in return for a subscription you get a customised e-reader, or even a smartphone, so allowing publishers to dispense with print altogether while providing a premium channel for advertisers that bypasses Google and Facebook. This would create an exclusive demographic that could command higher advertising rates, though at the cost of capping revenue growth as those rates would probably move inversely to subscriber numbers (i.e. the more exclusive the subscriber base, the higher the rate, but the lower the volume). But the end of mass readership would mean a dilution in political influence, which is why most newspapers will be reluctant to pursue this logic.

What the Guardian Media Group seems to be angling for is not merely an admission by Google and Facebook that they are publishers and gatekeepers, but for the creation of a content provider class system and thus a return to discrimination. Its beef isn't that its membership ads are polluted by association with white supremacist videos but that John Harris vox pops don't command a premium for ad rates. It isn't practical for humans to screen every possible combination of content and advert in a dynamic system, and AI cannot overcome ambiguity and context, but certifying content providers up-front (not unlike Twitter's tick-mark) would provide advertisers with the choice of a safe versus a risky spend in terms of both association and reach. This would also reduce the latitude of third-party media-buyers, for whom publishers have little respect. The tech titans would obviously resist this as it would mean sharing a greater portion of advertising revenues with the privileged content providers, who would in turn lobby to limit certification, but there may be room for a compromise given that the platforms recognise the need for quality content to be publicly available. If the Web becomes too tabloid and low-rent, then high-margin advertisers may drift back to direct placements in niche publications, such as those dedicated e-readers.

One notable exception to the paywall/membership trend is The Washington Post, which has been absorbed into Amazon's wider services landscape since being bought by Jeff Bezos in 2013 (I note Amazon Fire tablets now have the WaPo app pre-installed). While some newspapers like The Guardian have trumpeted "digital first" strategies for the last 5 years, the experience of the Post suggests that this only works if software engineers become more important to the internal culture of the business than journalists, which isn't something that is likely to happen at a newspaper owned by the Scott Trust. In reality, technology has been whittling away at the importance of curation (i.e. editing) for some years. Given that curation is more science than art, being the consistent application of rules to inconsistent data, this really shouldn't come as a surprise, but the newspaper industry's infatuation with the philosopher-king editor is too entrenched to be challenged by a press insider. I think this ultimately explains the hysterical note in the Guardian Media Group's attitude towards the tech titans, and in particular its emphasis on human discrimination. If content is king, then editors are automatable.