Monday, 24 October 2016

Is western-style democracy in trouble?

Democracy doesn't always look all that much fun at the moment, does it? You put up a few mild opinions, you get back some alt-left or alt-right links from The Canary or Breitbart full of plot twists and ways of speaking that you'd never heard before you stumbled into that particular echo chamber. You post a link on Twitter. An anonymous egg of a profile pops up to call you a 'traitor' or a 'disgrace'. It's enough to make most middle-of-the-road citizens, without much to lose from the online shouting match, just give up on the effort to engage altogether.

There's also much worse out there - more structural signs of deep dysfunction that ought to be giving us all even more concern than the social media filtering bubbles to which the symptoms of decline are linked. The amount of rage directed at journalists, either asked to 'name their sources' (when doing just that might endanger sources, or indeed the ability to get a story out at all), or verbally abused, or continuously menaced in some very dark and bleak scenarios indeed. There's the number of people on the Left who are prepared to turn a blind eye to the deeds of the Assad regime and their Russian allies in Aleppo. There's Right-wingers who are happy to use Wikileaks to damage Hilary Clinton's presidential bid in the US, despite the fact that their source is so obviously now an arm of Russian power. All just to prove a point: to win a poisonous game of ins-and-outs, party-versus-party, that matters much less, in the long run, than just holding together as societies and polities.

Western societies are becoming very divided. It would be easy and cheap to say that this is linked to income inequality and increasing economic polarisation, though there's clearly something much more general happening than this. Our splintering - and fury - appear to be affecting countries that indeed have seen a huge recent surge in inequality (the United States), and those that have not, at least since the 1980s (the United Kingdom). Yes, one key to the Brexit vote in the UK was the poor services and bleak economic state of much of non-metropolitan England and Wales. But it wasn't the only reason, as votes from quite wealthy areas which nonetheless feel culturally alienated from metropolitan internationalism (North Surrey, Kent) demonstrate all too well.

It's partly the flows of hate that can coarse through the body politic via Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, 'I read it on Facebook' might one day be seen as the five words that became the epitaph of civilised, reasoned argument. All that allows stories that might not be quite what they seem to take wing very quickly. It allows parties to be taken over by small minorities of the population - as micro-level organisation and the ownership of mailing lists become political gold. The flow of unfiltered information is altering the very nature of democracy itself.

But it's deeper than that, too. Education is emerging as one of the key dividing lines in modern politics. It was there in the Brexit campaign. It's there now, perhaps even more clearly, in the battle between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump (above). It basically pits one entire world-view - outward looking, conceptual, liberal, confident, socially tolerant - against another: autarkic, concrete, conservative, fearful, concerned. As change speeds up, rather than slows down, this seems likely to become an ever-deeper trench dug across the national landscape.

There's so much more to this - the subject of a series of blogs, perhaps, rather than a once-and-for-all entry - but polarisation is wherever you look. It's there in the urban-versus-rural divide we saw in the EU independence referendum, and once again we can see it laid bare in the present US Presidential election. What will it be: bikes and metro? Or: cars and buses? Coffee shops, or cafes? Parks, or gardens? Low-carb, and low-carbon, or high-fat, and big wheels? All of that seems much more important than the traditional story woven around tax and spending. It's all about ways of thinking, seeing and speaking - not about policy, objective winners and losers, or set off-the-peg ideologies. That's why it seems so bewildering to many insiders. That's why it all changes so quickly. That's why we don't seem to have as many collective reference points or shared ground anymore. That's what's behind the age of political fury.

Still, as any historian should tell you, democracy's run into trouble before. Economic populism and protection swept the world in the late nineteenth century. It was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s to talk about the aridity of British politics, frozen into two huge blocs of social class alone, and thus unable to adapt to the modern world. Between the wars, as economic crisis after economic crisis smashed into one another, there was much talk in Western Europe and North America of 'expert government', autocracy and scientific management - all in the place of what Parliament and Congress had been wont to do. Across most of the fascist and communist world, there was much cod-philosophical and pseudo-religious talk about the end of history - as organic, determined, historically-validated and above all inevitable rules replaced the merely bourgeois periodic choice of different faces to run the status quo. By June 1940, those self-destructive ideologies had basically carried all before them. That was a far greater crisis than that we face now.

That example actually tells us a lot about human agency. Faced with Depression and fascism, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill were able to fuse very different personal views into new politics: on the part of the first, a New Deal economics that brought hope and a sense of national purpose, whatever its controversial contribution to actual recovery; and for Churchill, a mystical romantic patriotism that drew on Britons' deep sense of national mission and exceptionalism.

Democracy's ever-adaptive synapses may perform the same function again, without the need for such a crisis to speed up the process of adjustment. Somewhere, there's probably a programmer with a good alternative to the social media algorithms that point us in the main to opinions we're already going to like. One day, Putinism's appeal to Left and Right will be seen as the tawdry opportunism it really is. The ranks of American Republicans probably contain a socially liberal Justin Trudeau type, who will march his or her party back towards Reaganesque optimism and the sunny uplands of the world as it is, not as it seems in the fevered imagination of alt-right conspiracies. British Labour will one day find new ideas, fusing together social justice and economic efficiency as did the New Liberals when they read Hobson and Hobhouse, or when Harold Wilson began to promote the application of science and technology as the way to a better society. And so on.

So, yes, 'western' democracy is labouring low indeed in the water - for now. Its challengers, both internal and external, are strong, confident, loud and well-organised. They have the wind at their backs. But representative democracy, the rule of law and the liberal public sphere have met and surmounted much greater challenges. It would be very, very foolish indeed to bet against them doing so again.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Brexit: an early audit

Now that some of the dust has settled on the British electorate's decision to leave the European Union - if only a little bit - we thought we'd take a look at how it's going. The answer? Not particularly well, though perhaps not quite as catastrophically as campaign rhetoric would have had it.

What did we say, back in the spring and early summer when we recommended a 'Remain' vote? Well, that Britain would not be able to negotiate a very good bespoke deal once it had shredded most of its influence in the European Commission and Council; that Russia would be further emboldened by the obvious division among NATO allies; that the British economy would be weaker, and its people poorer, for any decision to leave; and that the British state would creak and groan at the seams with the sheer effort of managing exit from the EU. How do those claims now look, four months on?

Can Britain have its cake and eat it? So - we said during the referendum campaign that many in Britain seemed to think that they could walk out and then still dictate terms. No-one can do that. Britain can't do that. And so it is proving. Now of course harsh words and confrontation are the order of the day when there's been an only semi-amicable divorce, but the European Commission and most of its member governments have made absolutely clear that there will be no Single Market membership without freedom of movement for people as well as goods and services. The UK government cannot possibly concede the latter, so important was immigration (and a desire to limit it) in the vote itself. So there will be no Single Market membership. Britain might continue in the Customs Union that covers actual physical goods. It might be able to 'carve out' specific sectors of the economy for special treatment. But the Single Market is gone. Now that's a blow of controversial size, but you can't pretend it's not a blow. Why would European leavers treat a defecting power with kid gloves, when that would only encourage demands from every other sceptical state in the Union? They won't. There'll be a tough negotiation that leaves Britain with worse access to the biggest free trade area in the world. And with no say over tens of thousands of rules that will govern its trade with that bloc. It's as simple as that.

The Russian challenge. We also said that Moscow would be further emboldened by this split among the Western allies. This is difficult to test, let alone to prove, but there's certainly been no let-up in the Russian push to undermine the moral and political will of the United States and its allies. They pour out propaganda on Russia Today. They speak to the Left and Right alternately when they think they have to, all the better to fire off a slick and easy anti-Americanism of every angle and every straightforward prejudice. They have influence over the higher echelons of the British Labour Party. They try to interfere in the American Presidential election. They pound the Syrian city of Aleppo to bits. And what does everyone else do? Well, nothing really - unless you count a harder and harsher semi-secret campaign of sanctions against Russia and its surrogates. As we've said before, there's no point spoiling for direct confrontation with Vladimir Putin's government. It could be counter-productive. Russia is still an adversary and a rival, not an enemy. But it has to be made abundantly clear that there is a line - somewhere. In the Baltics, perhaps, or in European financial and data security. If there's no line, we will tempt Mr Putin with our own weakness, so refreshingly (if depressingly) admitted last night by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Brexit just seems another minor, but meaningful, piece of evidence for that soft underbelly that Mr Putin spies. It wasn't a key moment. It wasn't even close to it. But it hasn't helped, has it?

A poorer Britain? Here it's important to distinguish between the merchants of doom - warning about a year-long recession, an economic ice age, the loss of more than £4,000 per household - and more realistic concerns about slower growth and more sluggish public finances. We said that the UK would be poorer if it left the EU. It probably will be, at least for a while. Growth next year will be slower than it would otherwise have been - perhaps halving the pace of progress we've experienced this year. That will drive up public sector debt and borrowing, perhaps not by the £60bn-plus that the Treasury still projects on its pre-referendum figures, but by quite a lot. One per cent of British GDP foregone? That adds up to maybe somewhere a bit shy of £19bn. Do that for a couple of years and take off the state's share of it, and you get £16bn more borrowing. Some way short of some of the worst-nightmare scenarios that would have blown the UK economy (and many family budgets) apart entirely of course, but enough to destroy a set of fiscal rules that were already under enormous strain. And that's before you add on the higher costs of government borrowing that are inevitable in such a confused environment. We're going to be poorer. Real wages are going to go down as sterling slides. The economy is going to grow more slowly. Public sector accounts are going to be gloomier. One day soon, as these things are measured, trend growth will resume. But it'll be tough getting there. People on low incomes will suffer the most as prices rise and welfare is squeezed. It's not going to be all that pretty, to be honest.

The incapable state. One of the biggest dangers we divined in Brexit was the fear that the British state would likely struggle to cope with its complexities. And so it is proving. The latest sign of this are the rumours of deep divides between the Treasury - worried about the economic effects of severing links with the Single Market altogether - and the government departments in charge of actually negotiating our way out. The Government also faces multiple legal cases, of unknown outcome. It faces potential obstruction from the Scottish and Northern Irish devolved administrations, which both have their own reasons for resisting Brexit in anything but the lightest form. It has almost no chance whatsoever of reaching a deal with the other 27 EU powers within the two years that Article 50 of the Nice Treaty stipulates for the UK to get out. All the while, the executive also faces a newly-assertive Parliament with a very small majority in the House of Commons, and while in a minority in the House of Lords. If it has to win a Parliamentary vote to trigger Article 50, there seems little doubt that it will get it. But when it tries to get its proposed Repeal Bill though both chambers, without a guillotine motion to bring debate to a speedy end? There are bound to be clauses where all its enemies unite, including many Conservatives with bruised egos who've just been sacked by Prime Minister Theresa May. The prospects for a full-scale breakup of the UK seem to be receding a little - against our predictions - for, just like everybody else, the Scottish government can read recent opinion polls that are at the moment gently trending away from independence. They must also regard the idea of a continuing UK outside the Single Market, while Scotland remains within the EU, with something close to outright horror given that a large majority of Scottish trade is with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A separate deal for Scotland within the UK, under which it can reach some trade deals itself and run its own immigration policy, seems more likely than a risky second referendum - for now. But if the Conservatives push this too far and too fast, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon may be left with no choice but to go for a second referendum while Scotland can at least hope (however vainly) to inherit the UK's place in the EU. Whatever else we say here, some years of confused scuffling and recriminations probably lie ahead.

So that's it. When we first contemplated Brexit, we thought that if it happened Britain would be more isolated diplomatically, that Russia would get tougher, that the UK would be poorer and that governance would get worse. Now, don't get us wrong here. Russia would have been on the lookout for weakness whatever happened on 23 June. And things look worse than they might turn out. There will be a trade deal - eventually. It will probably involve tariff-free access to Britain's manufactured goods, though supply networks are so complex these days that 'rule of origin' snags when you're trying to work outside the Single Market will make that less of a concession than it might once have been. There will probably be some sort of agreement on the 'passporting' of invisible goods and services, so that the City of London remains competitive. No doubt the UK will still have to pay into the EU budget (as does Norway), though the contributions may be much less than they are at the moment. The dark noises coming out of Brussels and Whitehall at the moment are a necessary and natural part of the forthcoming negotiations.

It's not all doom and gloom. The United Kingdom's economy is strong. It will survive - though heaven help us if we're buffeted by another global economic downturn, like a merchant caravan hit by a storm in the desert far from water. With both budgetary and monetary policy nearly exhausted, and with the complexities and uncertainties of Brexit tying us up in knots, we're going to sitting ducks for quite a little while. Still, we will come out the other side, We're not forecasting - and we never projected - a complete disaster.

But any objective audit of Brexit so far demonstrates quite clearly that many of our warnings were bang on the money. But then, who wants experts? They know so little. Just so little.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Conservative philosophy: so now you know...

Last week we said that the Conservative Party and the country’s new leader, Theresa May (above) needed a clear direction as quick as they could get one. Well, it didn’t take long for Mrs May to show us exactly where she was going. And it wasn’t all that pretty.
Last week we said that our own hunch was that the new Conservative pitch would be all about ‘security’ – national security, of course, but also the perhaps-illusory security of tighter borders and much lower immigration, with a bit of a side order of Blue Labour-style contributory benefits and more generous welfare payments. All the better, perhaps, to appeal to voters who seem increasingly restive about the constant change and transformation they have come to associate, in many ways correctly, with economic globalization.

And to some extent, that’s what we got. The accusation that Labour no longer speaks for workers and the public sector was almost casually tossed out, and via measures such as places for workers on company boards, and a slower path to deficit reduction, the impression was given that the free market was no longer to be seen as the be-all and end-all of Conservative politics.

But the real thrust was about immigration. Now this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Brexit referendum was in many ways won and lost on the issue. It’s the most important issue in the country. It’s also the main preoccupation of the main group of voters up for grabs at the moment – older voters who’ve been plumping for the United Kingdom Independence Party, now riven by its own internal squabbles and scandals. What did the Conservatives have to say about this? Well, they basically admitted that they were willing to guide economic policy almost entirely by these lights. No more free movement of people, Mrs May intoned. No more knuckling under to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. What that means is that Britain will almost certainly no longer be a member of the European Single Market, and may (depending on how well or badly negotiations go) may not even have very good access to it.

Worse, though – much worse – was to come. Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in her speech, floated the idea that companies' hiring practices should come under sceptical public scrutiny once they’d been forced to publish the number of foreigners that they employed. The whole absurd and vaguely sinister idea was soon dropped, but not without lingering in the air like the bad smell that it always was. There was also more on the terrible idea that landlords should check up on the nationality and immigration status of their tenants. And there was yet another putrid stinker of a concept: that students’ right of abode and work should depend on the quality of their course or institution. Who is going to decide on all that, and on what basis, we weren’t told. Measures more likely to turn away actual business, deter investment, real hard cash (at a time of enormous strain on sterling and on Britain’s balance of trade), and more likely to tie us up in knots just as we come to grips with the reality of Brexit? Well, they’d be hard to imagine. 

It wasn’t all immigration. Yes, they’ve said that there’ll be a bit kinder about Work Capability Assessments, and claimants with chronic conditions won’t have to go through rolling re-assessments. And there’ll be some more money for housing (though it will amount to only a drop in the ocean of true need). Mrs May also made clear in her second speech to the Conference that she thought that more interventionist economic policies may be necessary, while Chancellor Philip Hammond let it be known that the Government was thinking about a renewed emphasis on budgetary policy to go alongside the Bank of England’s monetary activism.

Some of that is all to the good. There’s nothing wrong with rowing back from policies that are widely seen to be either cruel (in the first case) and wise in a potential crisis (in the second). But a really worked-out rationale for a more active state, with aims and objectives for all to see? Rather than just the Jackson Pollock-esque chucking of some cash at more infrastructure projects, when Brexit volatility makes it imperative to underpin at least some domestic demand? That we didn’t see. What we got – what we got out of the Coalition after Chancellor Osborne’s tardy spending u-turn over 2012 and 2013 – was just some feints towards a real strategy. All the noise of economic security, to be sure: but without much of the reality.

So what we were really left with was the idea that immigration was always the real focus. That will probably push their poll ratings even higher than they are now, for a while. But this kind of shouty spray-it-all-around posturing might become a problem for Conservatives in the medium to long-term, because it gives the distinct impression that this is now a party that now wants the United Kingdom to turn in on itself – what we feared all along would be the price of a decision to leave the European Union, of course, but let’s leave that old argument for now. Of a Conference dominated by the concept of border security to the exclusion of anything else – of really good access to the Single Market, of inward investment, of attracting the workers and the skills that we are going to need as we age, of bringing the country together in the wake of a really divisive and bitter referendum campaign. Of a party that didn’t care if it was going to be seen as nasty and unpleasant all over again. As if all those years of modernization were little more than a Public Relations exercise.

The whole thing left quite a nasty taste in the mouth, if we’re being at all honest. The Conservative Party is the party of slum clearance under Benjamin Disraeli; of Keynesian economics under Stanley Baldwin; of council housing under Harold Macmillan; of Europeanism under Edward Heath; of gay marriage under David Cameron. Okay, that’s a very selective reading, but you get the picture. It cannot be, and it must never be, just the party of the Right if it’s also to pose as the party of the nation.

It’s true that Mrs May faces absolutely no opposition for now – except from a little bit of Single Markeering within her own government, and sterling’s role as the only real counter to her untrammeled power. But one day, the Conservative Party will face a renewed challenge. If all they’ve got to offer is an illiberal bunker mentality and a scattergun list of not-so-coded measures against immigration, they won’t be able to meet it. Before they meet again next year, Conservative activists and lawmakers have to get a more positive and coherent message. If they don’t, the voters will notice – and remember. One day, that will matter, quite a lot.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Where are the Conservatives actually going?

What is Conservatism actually for? The question is a pressing one, because as Conservative Party activists meet in Birmingham for their first Conference since Britain’s Brexit vote, it seems less than clear. No doubt the near-unprecedented political and strategic upheaval of the last year makes it hard to find your bearing. Let’s face it: none of the other main parties is doing a particularly good job of defining themselves at the moment either, the Liberal Democrats’ understandable (and canny) Europhilia aside. But there’s more to Conservatives’ vast lack of clarity to that. They have, in Theresa May (above), a new and relatively untested leader, and a new Cabinet; eleven years’ ‘decontamination’ and ‘modernisation’ seems to be under the microscope as never before; and, most of all, they seem to lack a guiding philosophy.

You’ll see what we mean when you look back at past Conservative leaders. Stanley Baldwin wanted to hold the country together during an economic and social crisis, partly by adopting some of the interventionist and proto-Keynesian the techniques that one might have associated with his opponents. Winston Churchill, of course, represented in himself a great moral endeavour – victory against fascism – that stood head and shoulders above all other aims. Harold Macmillan wanted to show that the Conservatives had adapted themselves to the welfare state and the mixed economy, and made sure that low unemployment and a huge housing drive backed up his words with deeds. Edward Heath tried to make Britain more corporate, more modern and more efficient – going into Europe being one of the main means by which that would be achieved. Margaret Thatcher also aimed at making Britain more competitive, though her chosen means were much harsher: the shock therapy of very high interest rates, public spending cuts and anti-trade union legislation. John Major thought that he could yoke that tough sense of economic priorities to a softer, kinder emphasis on the quality of public services, while David Cameron sought to rescue the Conservatives’ reputation for civic effort and social liberalism.

Now you can criticise all of those leaders (though Churchill’s image is probably a bit hard to dent). What you can’t do is say that you can’t locate them at all. Sometimes they were a little fuzzy. Macmillan in his brief stint as Chancellor didn’t say much that lived up to his Third Way anti-capitalist rhetoric from the 1930s. John Major was derailed by the great career-crunching issue of ‘Europe’ overall, and the Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle of September 1992 in particular. David Cameron often gave the impression that he was making it all up as he went along. But the image, the point, the direction of travel? All fairly clear.

We haven’t got much of that from Mrs May yet. Yes, we’ve got the idea that Britain will have to face outwards to the world, rather than just Europe, clear in her first leader’s speech to the Conference yesterday. But this seems more like a matter of events’ imperatives. Brexit forces you to make those choices. Elsewhere? Well, a break with a decade or more’s emphasis on Academies as the main vehicle for improving the quality of England’s schools, and new emphasis on grammar schools that is probably as backward-looking as it is politically unwise. That doesn’t seem like much of a step towards a new political philosophy either – at least on its own.

It might all fit into a new vision of post-Brexit: one in which everything’s to look a lot more like an imagined 1950s. One that never did exist and never could exist, of course, but a fantastical past that exerts a powerful sway over many voters, especially older Baby Boomers and Ukippers perhaps now shopping around for a new political home. Consider Mrs May’s emphasis on more government surveillance of the internet and of mobile phones while she was Home Secretary. Take a look at her scepticism about the Hinkley Point nuclear power station deal with the French and the Chinese, held up on what seemed to be national security grounds. Behold her utmost clarity – that immigration should be controlled, that it should come down in terms of raw numbers, and that the level should stay down.

Then listen to her close associate and advisor, her joint chief of staff Nick Timothy, when he muses about a harder, tougher line on economic and national security. That might go together well with a renewed One Nation emphasis on a more active, moralising, solidaristic state that builds more infrastructure and is more relaxed than hitherto about welfare spending – but demands the price of a more moralistic, more intrusive, increasingly strident and bigger Conservative (and conservative) government in return. Yes, you’ll be more secure (at least in theory), in all sorts of ways: but you may not like the hard borders, constant checks, economic direction and scowl-to-the-world that all that safety involves.

In this respect it is perhaps apposite that the Conservatives are meeting in Birmingham, since Mr Timothy has written a book about Joseph Chamberlain, the great leader of that city who started his political life as a Radical before fighting for existence and integrity of the United Kingdom as a Liberal Unionist. And what did Chamberlain think? Well, that you had to do something for working people if you were really serious about defeating socialism. That Britain should be assertive on the world stage, with global ambitions. That the UK was a force for good across the world, not just in a European frame. Mrs May’s emphasis on people who are just about getting by, and her use of the long-abandoned words ‘working class’, are important here. So is her emphasis on Britain’s global destiny, summoned up by necessity as it is.

An agenda is just about struggling to emerge. It’s provincial, anti-metropolitan, conservative, sceptical, nationalistic, focused on continuity and security rather than Blairite change and disruption. It's Birmingham over London. It will probably be very popular. But it’s all very, very early days. An agenda isn’t a philosophy, and nor will such a skeletal sense of priorities survive the next five years’ emphasis on Brexit above pretty much all else. These ideas will need constant attention, continual nurturing, round-the-clock monitoring. Mr Timothy may be kept very busy.

No doubt Mrs May looks at the space where a Labour Opposition ought to be, and she says to herself: ‘I’ll just stroll back to No. 10. No-one will even notice there’s a contest’. And she’s probably right – this time. But it would be most unwise for the Conservatives to rely on the weakness of their opponents for ever and a day. Labour might get its house in order more quickly than most assume, as the Conservatives did between the destruction of Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership and the election of David Cameron as their leader in 2005. They will – at some point – replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader, either with a more voter-friendly figure from the Soft Left (a Sadiq Khan or a Lisa Nandy), or a Left-wing leader with a more compelling life story and bags more charisma (think Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner).

Whatever happens, Labour is not going to remain forever as weak as they are now. Even if Labour were to break up entirely – and that looks unlikely at the moment – something else will happen to fill the space. A new centrist party might emerge, threatening to detach some relatively Euro-friendly Conservative MPs. The Liberal Democrats might enjoy a renaissance. A crisis over Brexit or Scottish independence might split the Conservatives themselves. You get the picture.

If she aspires to govern successfully for a long time – and the opportunity is there – Mrs May needs a lodestar. A set of ideas, principles or even just plausible and targetable futures that she can steer by. Just doing your best won’t cut it. Competence isn’t everything (though it is something). Being a bit nicer on welfare won’t suffice. Conservative leaders with legacies meant something when they spoke. They were going somewhere. They had an idea where it was, however hazy. Our new regime doesn’t have that yet. It needs it – fast.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

England's new grammar schools: playing with fire?

Prime Minister Theresa May (above) has recently announced that she wants to allow more selection by ability in England's schools, and will remove New Labour's ban on expanding or opening grammar schools. Now that's probably because she wants to appeal to older voters who might be tempted to come over from the United Kingdom Independence Party to the Conservatives. Maybe she also wants a flagship policy that will stamp her authority on the Government, or a new initiative that will stake out her differences with outgoing premier David Cameron. If so, she should be careful what she wishes for: because grammar schools are an academic, intellectual and above all political hazard that might be best avoided.

We've been here before. The grammar schools that dominated many post-war Britons' imaginations - either set up under the 1944 Education Act, or newly-accessible for free by any children who passed the famous 11+ examination - were a subject of enormous controversy when both Labour and Conservative administrations abolished most of them in the 1960s and 1970s. But there was lots of very good reasons why they did that. They weren't just driven by ideological fury, whatever myth-making you may read or hear from grammars' advocates. No: the reason that politicians took the system apart in those two decades is that the scholarly, popular and political consensus upon which any success might have rested collapsed before the whole system had been in operation for even a few years.

You can read all about this if you'd like, because (ahem) this blogger has already written about exactly that process, in chapter nine of a book about post-Second World War governance in general. What were the processes that brought the brief golden age of the state grammar to a close - closing or merging schools that formed a huge chunk of the secondary sector, and shaking up a much, much more significant slice of the schools system than Mrs May will probably ever dare to even tinker with?

First reason: parents' views of education were changing. Most children never went to grammars. They had to go to secondary moderns, if they 'failed' academic aptitude tests, pushed into schools which never really developed an ethos or educational rationale of their own. This was inevitably very unpopular, and parents' patience soon began to run out. No longer would they accept the majority of their children attending poorly-equipped and badly-run schools until they could be released from what often amounted to little more than a holding pen at the age of fifteen. Just one instance of this: a popular Campaign for Education, mounted in 1963-64, both helped put pressure on the flagging Conservative government of the time, and helped to implant the idea of better education for all children in the public consciousness as an unalloyed good. Ministers of all parties began to feel that they could not possibly relegate most voters' children to the academic sidelines - a burgeoning acceptance of reforms's necessity that was then reinforced by a revolution in the way education was conceptualised, let alone experienced.

So, secondly: the 11+ exam that decided which schools children went to at the age of eleven rested on the idea of stable IQ tests that could objectively tell which children were 'suited' to the grammar school, or the Secondary Moderns and Technical Schools to which other children were to be apportioned. But an increasing number of university studies showed that IQ score reports were very unstable, and subject to change for the same children over time - damning enough for a supposedly 'scientific' process. And even more lethal to the tests' credibility was that evidence quickly mounted that supposedly academic testing was in fact a form of social selection (just as it still is where the 11+ survives) - a test than ran the sliderule over ways of scanning, thinking, problem selection and language that owed much more to young people's replication of their home environment than any future abilities they might be able to draw on.

Third and last: education spending was gradually coming to be seen as a necessary outlay for upgrading the nation's human capital. The Soviets and the Americans were pouring money into science, technology and engineering in schools, the argument went: Britain must follow their lead. Though there was a great deal of the fashionable techno-nationalism of the era bound up in all that - as if national virility and honour could not be sated without splurging money here, there and everywhere - the idea that education spending would garner a return for everyone gained a hold. Why, then, spend much of that money - and reserve all the qualifications - on just the small number of children who might emerge from poorer backgrounds and do well in these schools? The idea made no sense at all. Training accountants, lawyers and army officers was fine. But who was going to check on the abilities and progress of the black-coated technical workers so beloved of a technocrat such as Harold Wilson?

No-one in Whitehall or Westminster had much of an answer to these growing parental demands, the end of selection's academic credibility, nor the new idea that education overall was a national investment rather than a personal test. Or, at least, they had no idea of how to meet any of those challenges without rowing back from selection at the age of eleven. So one civil servant accepted privately in 1960 that: 'the system under which failure to win a place in a selective school at 11+ meant complete and irrevocable denial of the coveted opportunities associated with a grammar school education could not hope to win the support of parents, and could not survive the day when their wishes could gain a hearing'. While another feared that, should they do nothing about Secondary Moderns' apparent disregard for most pupils' prospects, 'this country is pouring out its human wealth like water on the sands'. There wasn't much arguing with either case. That's why comprehensives are there - not as some theoretical experiment, but as the most practical and semi-popular system Ministers from both main parties thought they could press into the service of national re-training and efficiency.

If Mrs May goes too far down this track - if all this means more than just a few satellite schools and extra classrooms here and there - then all of that parental angst is going to come her way. All that 'failure' is going to be placed at her door. And all that pouring out of human capital, so obvious now as it was then - and the waste and hurt and confusion that selection at eleven involves - will get blamed on her. Most parents are not going to like this. They are going to get very, very anxious. Things could get ugly. It's not much of a sell for any politician.

Grammars were abolished because politicians came to understand that they were toxic in the country, and harmful to the economy. Now that we need every single individual's skills to be stretched to the utmost (especially when Mrs May's own government wants to reduce immigration), and now that parents have mounting educational expectations for their offspring that seem to surge ever upwards with every passing year, the only thing that's changed is that a return to academic selection could shred even more reputations than it threatened to in the 'sixties.

So here's what we think: the new grammars policy will be watered down until it is very, very dilute indeed: or it will become a long-running sore that will cause Mrs May more trouble than any extra reservoir of votes is worth. This idea has got trouble written all over it, right from the start.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Where did the anti-Corbynites go wrong?

In just under a week, Jeremy Corbyn will almost certainly be re-elected as Leader of the Labour Party - and, if all the credible indications we have are correct, perhaps by a wider margin than the 60 per cent or so of the votes that he received last year.

Yet less than a couple of months ago, his position looked worse than precarious. His first nine months in office had been marred by laughable debacle after ludicrous gaffe after embarrassing spectacle. Most of the organised, professional Labour Party at the centre were deeply unhappy with Mr Corbyn's role in the Remain camp's defeat in the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. He had either under-performed so badly that he was not fit for his office, their argument went: or, in fact, he had actually connived and plotted, along with his top team, to help the Leave camp that he so obviously backed in private. Whatever the truth, he had to go. His Shadow Cabinet disintegrated; his Parliamentary Party passed a huge Vote of No Confidence against him - something that would have ended any other leader's time in office then and there - while large numbers of councillors, the Labour London Mayor and the Party's Leader in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, all lined up to condemn his ideas, or his performance, or both.

So what happened? How did the views of the Party's General Secretary, its Deputy Leader, almost all of its MPs, the majority of its Members of the Scottish and European Parliaments, all of its living ex-leaders, a great big basket of Labour luminaries and celebrities, and indeed almost everyone the wider public has ever heard of within Labour, turn out to be so irrelevant? How could a leader beleaguered on almost every front even hope to survive, let alone lead anything resembling a political party? Well, here's some thoughts on how the anti-Corbynites got so badly beaten.

They don't have enough alternative ideas. Mr Corbyn is identified with a very clear world-view. The private market does not provide. The state should spend more. Austerity is unnecessary, punitive and just plain wrong. The United States often acts against the interests of the wider peace. The UK should stay out of foreign conflicts altogether, if at all possible. Now, you may not like those views (or you might find them inspiring), but they're clear - at least on the surface. The Labour leader's opponents? Well, not so much. There are elements of a novel Labour agenda floating around that derive from neither of those absurdly over-polarised alternatives, 'New Labour' and 'Corbynism'. But Mr Corbyn's opponents are both so multifarious, and so stunned both by Labour's 2015 defeat and the Party's descent since into full-on existential crisis, that they are struggling to get their intellectual case together. One idea they have got is moving towards a really, really strong localist and devolutionist agenda (as advocated here, as elsewhere) - something ex-leadership candidate Liz Kendall has been talking about over the last few days. But how are they supposed to argue against Labour's equivalent of motherhood and apple pie: more spending, more intervention, less austerity, more nationalisation? That seems like a lost cause, at least for now.

They don't have many big hitters. That mention of Liz Kendall gives the game away somewhat: a brave and doughty fighter for her brand of social democracy, she is rather unusual in that she is both a 'name' that means anything at all outside Westminster, and is prepared to put her head once more over the parapet. Elsewhere, the long shadow of the Blair-versus-Brown wars has fallen over the Party. There's just so few convincing leaders left. The Special Adviser class of the 2000s - the Andy Burnhams and the David Milibands - have fallen by the wayside, at least in terms of returning Labour to national office. Other figures that might once have aspired to lead Labour - Keir Starmer, say, or Chuka Umunna - have not exactly been conspicuous by their engagement in the fray. Perhaps they think that more sensible times will one day return; or they genuinely have to taste for the hand-to-hand; or think that the cause is lost anyway. Whatever the reasons, it's been left to Owen Smith (above) - a perfectly admirable Secretary of State, perhaps, but not a readymade national leader - to carry the banner of the Corbyn refuseniks. He's made too many mistakes for comfort. Of course he has. He wasn't oven-ready, or enough of a confidence, experienced power-broker, to expect anything else. And he's been beaten, fairly easily, by a candidate with better spin and clearer branding.

They haven't moved with the times. Mr Corbyn's opponents have been running behind his bandwagon ever since he was nominated for the leadership last summer. At first, they ignored him, because he was a 'fringe' candidate who had no chance of winning. Then, they tried to paint him as a loveable-but-muddleheaded outsider who would do quite well, and who had won the right to be listened to, but actually wasn't all that serious about wanting the job. Then, once it became clear that he'd win, many Labour MPs simply decided to serve their constituents, write reports for think tanks, and appear on the TV - anything to avoid co-operating with Seumas Milne, Andrew Fisher and the like. Simply put, Mr Corbyn himself has been an irrelevant sideshow at Westminster for so long, and his type of Leftism has been dormant for years that are hard to count. So everyone else underestimated him - and his ideas. That has cost them. Maybe if they'd put up Owen Smith last year - a fresh face, and a credibly Left-wing one - they might have won, or reduced Mr Corbyn's famous 'mandate' to the extent that it was easier to get rid of him. No doubt they'll put up someone more impressive next year, or the year after, when membership churn has made the selectorate even more favourable to Mr Corbyn. Then they'll lose again, by an even greater margin. If they'd tried that this year, they would have got closer. They've been behind the game throughout. Labour's non-Corbynites are paying the price.

A networked revolt has overtaken them. Once upon a time, what the Mirror thought would have made a big noise in Labourworld. Then, when it joined in the revolt against Mr Corbyn in a way that the newspaper had never come out against Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband, it would have looked even worse for him. But that's not how things work now. These days, Facebook and Twitter allow Mr Corbyn's committed supporters to communicate with each other, and like-minded friends, much more than they ever have to listen to unexpected sources of dissonance or dissent. The fantasist clickbait wrongfest that is The Canary website is rapidly growing to rival more established outlets such as The New Statesman and The Economist. Aaron Bastani's Novara Media and economics journalist Paul Mason's blog are replicated endlessly on Facebook, to the great consternation and confusion of less politically-active Britons faced with memes, tropes and language that they just don't recognise from their position within the reality-based community. Mr Corbyn's Facebook following itself has just completely steamrollered Mr Smith's. The Labour Party is now the preserve of hundreds of thousands of inter-connected campaigns, blogs and 'news' sites that look nothing like The Mirror or The Guardian. If they want to challenge that, Labour's centrists have to construct their own social network. That will be hard work. It will mean that groups such as Progress and Labour First may have to dissolve themselves and create one single-minded and focused campaign like the Corbynite Momentum group. It will mean that they have to get new ideas, a leader, a set of causes. That they have to really define themselves, way beyond the fuzzy calls of 'not-Jeremy' or 'Jeremy-but-competent' that we hear today. It's probably the work of many, many years. It might even need decades to coax moderate, workaday British people into a party that looks increasingly nothing like the country it seeks to lead.

Labour's just too far gone. Practically no-one believes that Labour are going to win the next General Election outright. A few more perhaps think that they might be able to play some sort of role in forming a majority that could lock Theresa May out of No. 10. But let's face it: neither group is very numerous. There's never been a Labour Opposition that's polled this badly. There's never been a Labour leader (with the possible exception of Michael Foot) who's this unpopular with the public. Local government by-elections are going badly. Westminster by-election swings are way down on 2011 - the last proper comparator - and the local election results in May were just very, very poor indeed. Labour came third in Scotland, when it was a key Corbynite claim that a 'Left-wing' offer could 'win Scotland back' - as if something as momentous as Labour's rout there had a one-trick-pony answer. The problem this creates for Labour people actually interested in elections is this: they can't offer electoral salvation. 'Owen Smith offers you the chance to lose less badly' is not a great slogan. 'Owen Smith: you won't be routed, and one day you might rise again': it doesn't set many hearts aflame. So Labour will march on, knowing that the next time we all see an exit poll it will probably be a grisly, icy, tragic moment of blue-lightning clarity, all the while thinking 'well, if he's going to fail, Jeremy must be allowed to fail on his own terms. Then we'll start again'.

They're not and they weren't particularly ruthless, the anti-Corbynites. The so-called 'coup' launched in June was really an overlapping series of revolts - partly planned among really hard-core anti-Jezites, in all probabilily, but across the Soft Left and among large swathes of the councillor base, more of a 'riot of despair' than anything else. They could have gone even further. They could have collapsed the Whips' Office and dissolved the official Opposition altogether. The Parliamentary Party might have elected its own leader and just got on with things, daring members to tear them down. They certainly could have come out and told their stories of disgraceful negligence and downright failure much, much earlier - and in a more concerted way. The fact that they didn't tells you how much of a 'coup' there has really been.

We can all see, now, just how perilous previously-mainstream Labour's position really is. In all likelihood electorally irrelevant well into the 2020s, and faced with a wall of totally convinced certainty on the part of their internal adversaries, many anti-Corbynites are probably on the way out whatever they do. There will very likely be a Corbynite leader in the next Parliament - Emily Thornberry, perhaps, Richard Burgon, or Clive Lewis - and there may not be anything that the Labour rebels can do about it. But they can still perhaps cling on to a little bit of hope, and hang on in there for the next decade they will have to endure, because before them is a good example of a huge political comeback: just how hopeless things looked, just a few years ago, for the insurgent Left that seemed so irrelevant for so long. By thinking - really thinking - while also coalescing around a plausible Party and national leader, by reaching out beyond politics, and by drawing hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people to the banner of a really inclusive, dynamic, open party that isn't just for political enthusiasts, they might get a chance to lead again.

For now, they've once again been caught in the headlights. They didn't see any of this coming, and most Labour people would have acted differently if they had. At least now they see the size of their challenge, and they can act accordingly - if they think it's worth fighting on at all.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Could a 'progressive alliance' save the Left?

There's been some recent talk about a 'progressive alliance' that might save the British Left: Corbynite Shadow Cabinet member Clive Lewis, and newly re-elected joint Green Party leader Caroline Lucas (above) have both recently floated the idea. Although the details are usually fairly opaque, the concept seems to involve some form of electoral and campaigning co-operation between Labour and the Greens, as well as perhaps the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party. Given that to achieve even a tiny absolute Commons majority on its own Labour would have to pull off near-miraculous wins in seats like Canterbury (where the party trailed in nearly 10,000 votes behind the Conservatives last time), these calls have a superficial attractiveness. But could the whole idea fly?

Let's start with the electoral battleground. Here the stark fact is that, by allying with the Greens, Labour could hope to win at the very most eleven seats from the Conservatives on the existing boundaries that are likely to remain in force until 2018/19 - even if every single voter from that party moved over to its side. That's enough in theory to rob the Conservatives of their overall majority, but they'd undoubtedly just continue to govern as a minority with some help from the Democratic and Ulster Unionists. And if we get a bit more realistic - we assume that only half of the ex-Green voters move over to Labour - then we go down to a gain of just eight seats. Adding Plaid to the mix gives you just another two seats on top - Vale of Clywd  and Cardiff North - but Theresa May would still be in No. 10.

That's a puny reward for a lot of effort, and no doubt a great long round of negotiations that will probably do more to confuse voters about Labour's core principles than it will fire them up at the sight of Labour's big-tent ecumenicalism. It's no wonder that Green activists, in particular, are signalling that this is an idea that's at best still at the incubation stage, and why many Green thinkers are more than clear that the whole idea would require an ideological rejig that might take some time - not a quick list of electoral deals conjured up out of nowhere.

Bear this point in mind also: the two seats that the Greens look like they have even a hope of winning, Norwich South and Bristol West, are Labour fortresses that the local Constituency Labour Parties will surely not, under any circumstances, give up. What, then, can Labour offer the Greens in return for a free run at maybe ten to fifteen sitting Conservatives? A bye on the Isle of Wight, and in Portsmouth South as well as Truro and Falmouth, all seats where the Greens might therefore be granted the high-but-not-particularly-productive honour of finishing a creditable second? It doesn't seem like much of a carrot, really. And what could Labour offer Plaid? A free tilt at their first Conservative target of Clywd West, where they've pretty much got no change and where Labour came second last time anyway? We doubt that local Labour activists would hear of it.

What about the situation in Scotland? Well, there the idea of some sort of pact just seems like a fantasy, as Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale as well as ex-Scottish Secretary (and last remaining Scots Labour MP) Ian Murray recently made clear. First point: the near-ancestral loathing between the SNP and Labour would make any deal almost impossible. Second point: what on earth does Labour have to give the SNP that they don't already have? Standing aside to take the heat out of not-entirely-plausible Scots Conservative runs at Berwickshire (where Labour got under 3,000 votes last time), Dumfries and Galloway, and Aberdeenshire West? When those last two seats would need a six per cent swing for the Conservatives to oust the SNP? Big deal. Third point: Scots politics doesn't rotate around the 'left' to 'right' axis that English 'progressives' who don't actually spend that much time in Scotland think it does. It is still (understandably) centred around the constitutional question - a fact that might in time allow Labour to bring some unionist voters back into its camp, as experience in Edinburgh South as one of the only bright spots in its dire performance at the 2016 Holyrood elections suggests. It's a thin hope, but it's probably all they've got. In this situation Labour throwing in its lot with the SNP would be the embrace of the graveyard - because what, then, could it possibly stand for in terms of the great question of independence or the Union? Voters who favour separation from the rest of the UK are already long gone. If they're going to help the SNP, they might as well ring up Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and say 'we're giving up, have most of our votes. Would you like the buildings and all the canvassing data as well?'

So the answer to our original question is this: no, there can and there will be no 'progressive alliance'. Most of the parties supposed to get involved wouldn't want it. It wouldn't deliver many - if any - gains to the widely (and erroneously) defined 'Left' even if it did take hold. Voters probably wouldn't like it, and they might well take umbrage at being told what to do by party elites denying them a full choice of candidates in each individual seat.

What this long-running hare is really about is distracting people on the left from the realities of electoral life. Like its closely-allied bedfellows, the mythical progressive 'non-voter' and the 'disillusioned Ukipper', both conjured up in the last year or so as lifelines for Britain's left, this is a refuge from an ideological and demographic map that anyone with a bit of basic maths and some sociology can read. The road to any sort of non-Conservative government is long. It runs not along the broad-but-error-strewn path towards this supposed 'progressive alliance', but on a much narrower, rockier, harder and steeper track: via England's small and medium-sized towns, where most people drive to work, through provincial English cities and the working class districts of big conurbations, around and about suburbs and exurbs mostly free of political enthusiasts and rallies, and it takes in big slices of the West and East Midlands along the way. Places where voters want to see a coherent plan, a plausible leader, a language that chimes with how real people actually talk, a bit of consistency, a scarlet thread of patriotism, a little dash of competence, understanding, humility and the self-confidence that's displayed by actually listening to what people are telling you. Right now? Labour is showing off none of these things. Quite the opposite. Why teaming up with the SNP, Plaid and the Greens would change that seems a bit of a mystery.

Victory runs through Nuneaton, Plymouth Moor View, Telford, Loughborough and the like - a wall of blue that should have gone or stayed red in 2015's 'hidden landslip', a contest in which the Conservatives strengthened their hold on ex-Labour areas - and even gained a few ex-Labour seats themselves. In none of those constituencies would adding the Green vote to the Labour pile mean that the MP changed his or her party colours (though they'd get pretty close in Plymouth). In all of those seats, any high-falutin' pact between national leaders might also lose voters as quickly as the fear of an SNP-Labour alliance did in 2015: because voters don't like to think they are being taken for fools; because they think that party manifestos should be more than the first draft of a bargaining round; and because English voters, rightly or wrongly, would resent being dictated by by Scots or Welsh MPs when those nations have their own versions of self-government.

If you don't like Britain's government, you can campaign to change it. What you can't do from Opposition is circumvent the system by changing the electorate, altering voters' roster of choices, or tinkering with the system. If you want to do those things, you have to get into power first - an act of imagination, will and daring that a 'progressive alliance' would do nothing to foster.