Thursday, 6 April 2017
...until after Easter. This blogger is off to talk about British history, British politics and Brexit away from these shores. But never fear: we'll be back. Look for the next post here on Tuesday 2 May, when we'll be previewing the local and mayoral elections taking place that week.
Until then - just you look after yourselves, won't you?
Tuesday, 4 April 2017
Away from the storm and tempest of British national politics at the moment, the Government's Higher Education Bill has been struggling through both Houses of Parliament. That's been made all the more difficult because of Brexit, firstly because the Government don't have much time to think about anything else but its search for understanding and trade deals from Brussels to Washington; but also because the official Opposition are still trying to get themselves together after the traumas of the last eighteen months.
It's had a rough passage, at least in the Lords, where the Government does not have a majority, and there's a bit more of a spirit of fight on the Opposition benches. Their Lordships have in particular been very unkeen on the idea of linking the new Teaching Excellence Framework (the TEF) with raising university fees in line with inflation. Not only has the integrity of that process been giving a good elegant kicking in speech after speech, but the whole concept of linking indices of 'quality' with what Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) can charge has come under sustained fire. What do these metrics mean, goes the argument? Should they really be linked to the very hard-to-capture idea of 'quality'? The different amounts that varied concepts of the 'good' course really cost? Different priorities for students at different stages, in different parts of the country, asking for different types of tuition given the emphasis on 'choice' that the Government is in the end trying to promote?
Their Lordships have a point. Many of the TEF metrics are well-designed and rigorous. But many of them - particularly the idea that post-education employment and salaries will be included - simply are not. Not only that, but the whole idea of poking a big stick around the sector rests on an offensive and deeply inaccurate picture encouraged by Ministers. This is the idea that much of the teaching in HE is poorly designed and sloppily delivered: cut and paste jobs from year to year, without innovation or deep rethinking. Not only is this entirely unproven: its emphasis on academic 'inertia', and the fight against it (carrying with it echoes of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's faux-populist campaigns on behalf of patients) is out of the ark. No-one who's actually been in a university these past two decades really thinks that they're something out of Brideshead Revisited, full of yellowing lecture notes and eccentric dons. No doubt there are a few holdouts, but we haven't seen any. It's Ministers themselves, with their bloviating over-emphasis on the Research Excellence Framework and its link to research funding, that have encouraged academics to peer away from the seminar room, and not lecturers themselves.
The real difficulty with the TEF is the emphasis on control, rather than the true liberty of new thinking and innovation: in this respect its innate complexity and hard-to-grasp innards may well make teaching worse, and not better. The problem is actually that we don't know where the bad soft spots are. But someone's job will be to find out and play that game: meaning that labelling teaching, rather than actual teaching, will zoom up the agenda. This is also, by the way, the reason why universities won't be allowed to charge vastly higher fees, however large the likely Conservative landslide at the next General Election: and why Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and the like won't be allowed to go private: it would remove Ministers' powers to tinker, meddle and fiddle to their hearts' content.
Still, larger changes lie under the bonnet. The lifting of the cap in detail on student numbers four years ago means that universities are now engaged in a pile-them-all-in fight for student numbers on an unprecedented scale, especially as the falling birth rate around the turn of the century is right now pushing student numbers to new lows. That is creating universities' very own 'squeezed middle': strong but not overwhelmingly prestigious provincial universities that are losing out in recruitment as some Russell Group players massage down the real grades they will accept for entry, and who now look likely to be challenged by private providers after the Higher Education Bill reduces barriers to entering the sector. These institutions will have to specialise more, work more regionally and locally, build up their profiles on where they are good, and if we are honest perhaps cut back sectors where they are finding it harder. It'll be tough in the middle. Eventually, the rising birth rate from about the early 2000s onwards will mean that there are more than enough students to go around, and indeed as in the 1960s planners will again have to scramble to keep up - one good reason to keep whole fields and departments open now rather than pay all the startup costs when they have to be re-opened in ten years' time. But perhaps that would too rational for Westminster and Whitehall at the moment.
So the truth about what lies ahead is probably a little bit bland: rather more of the same, but speeded up. There's little doubt that the TEF will now indeed start to play a key role in university life, becoming ever more bureaucratised and unpopular in the HE sector itself even while it never gets particularly highly-regarded among applicants and parents; but the link with fees won't be that important, especially if inflation does remain relatively and historically low over the medium term. There seems little chance of any government in sight dramatically lifting the fees ceiling, which means that the direct cash incentives for doing 'better' on that imperfect metric will always be fairly low. So fees will gently rise, while some prestigious universities will be made to look foolish, because their view of themselves won't be matched by their lowly position in the TEF league tables.
Elsewhere, the 'squeezed middle' won't struggle so much as specialise, withdrawing from an all-in competition with the big battalions and settling for a more bespoke middleweight role, challenged in that ambition by some (but only some) new providers who will come in from the private sector and beef up numbers in specific areas such as law and publishing. And all the while, a great big wave of new students are waiting in the wings, building up from the trough of the next year or two and cresting impressively about 2030. It's not actually a very dramatic picture. But years of strain, slog and restraint lie ahead before all those new students ride to the rescue in the mid- to late-2020s. English universities will just have to tighten their belts and wait for the cavalry.
Sunday, 26 March 2017
All political tribes live by myths and legends. Labour always talks about how Nye Bevan founded the National Health Service. The Conservatives put up paintings of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. There are probably few depths of bathetic silliness that such conjuring tricks cannot case in a warm glow. No doubt one day, Brexiteers will thrill around camp fires to the Tale of Two-Faced Boris and How He Slew His Friend. Or Gove the Brave, and How He Slew His Friend. Anyway, we digress.
The point is that it's perfectly natural for political movements, parties, even fragments of both or either, to tell themselves stories. They gee up the faithful. They encourage the doubters. Problems only really emerge when this process is either deliberately hothoused, like tulips in winter, by leaders who should know better. Or when those tales prevent the group seeing themselves, even for a moment, as they truly are or as others see them. Gods are fine. False gods? Not so much.
So it is with one of the most pernicious political myths of our time: that the UK Labour Party was 'neck-and-neck' with the Conservative Party (or might even have occasionally edged into the lead) in opinion polls running up to last year's European Union referendum. That there was then a deliberate 'coup' mounted by Labour MPs which so damaged Labour that the progress it was making - its emerging parity with the Government - was wiped out by a string of Shadow Cabinet and Front Bench resignations, a long leadership contest and a lot of bad, bad political blood. You can read this line as pushed by Left-wing pressure group Momentum here. You can read the reported remarks of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on the matter here. Here's a good example of a left-wing blog (from last year) saying the same thing. Here's Paul Mason from last summer, saying that Labour and the Conservatives were 'neck and neck' then.
There's one main glaring problem with this view: it isn't true. Labour was certainly never ahead, and the most respected experts in the field have baldly judged that '[the] frequent claims that Labour were equal to (or even ahead of) the Tories before Labour’s leadership troubles erupted... [are] disingenuous... at best, and seem... to rest wholly upon cherry-picking individual polls'.
Now let's leave aside the vexed question of the word 'coup' here. Probably there were some elements of a 'coup' about the whole thing. Quite a lot of Labour MPs had been waiting for some way to overturn the party's new-old dispensation, and in the immediate aftermath of the Remain campaign's failure thought they had found it. But the 'riot of despair' that overtook the Parliamentary Labour Party had so, so many more elements to it, reaching all the way from the Leftest of the Soft Left to the hardest of Blairites, that 'coup' is a vastly inadequate and misleading term for it. Maybe we'll write about that at more length someday.
Let's focus instead on the polling numbers, and the logic behind them. First, take a look at the chart above. This is all the polling from the calendar year 2016, showing the main two parties' ratings on a six-poll rolling average. The first thing we see? The Labour line never touched the Conservative line. They were not 'neck-and-neck'. The reason we use the average from many polls is that polls are subject to so-called 'normal' error: if two parties were truly about as popular as one another, you would expect quite a few showing the red team three points ahead, and about the same number showing the blue team three points up, as well as quite a few in between and many others showing a dead heat. Did we ever, ever see that? No, we did not.
There were only ever three polls that showed Labour ahead of the Conservatives. These were all reported by the polling company YouGov, on 17 March, 12 April and 26 April. They showed Labour ahead by one point, and then twice by three points. There was one more poll that showed the two parties dead level, carried out by Survation for The Mail on Sunday and published on 25 June. That's it. All the other polls, for the whole of the first half of the year leading up to Hilary Benn's sacking in the early hours of 26 June, showed Labour behind. That's simply not the pattern you'd see if parties were truly 'neck-and-neck'. Case closed.
Case-even-more-closed, point one: Labour's slide did not begin on 26 June. Rather, it had begun more than two and a half months earlier. Labour's poll rating 'peaked' at an average of 33.7% on 1 April: it had already fallen to 31.2% by 26 June. The smallest average Conservative lead was one per cent, registered on 12 April: this had already opened up slightly, to 2.7%, by the time the Shadow Cabinet began to disintegrate in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum. Not only that, but this was but one more passage in Labour's medium-term collapse, having peaked at nearly 43% in the immediate wake of George Osborne's catastrophic 'Omnishambles Budget' during the spring of 2012. Their average now? About 27%, on a glidepath that hasn't seen great big dramatic falls in support, but a slow, gradual, painful retreat that suggests structural, not directly political (and certainly not high political) causes.
Cause-even-more-closed, point two: yes, Labour did get quite near to the Conservatives in the spring (not the summer) of 2016. But that was not due to any great surge in enthusiasm for socialism, Parliamentary or otherwise. The reason we've just put the word 'peaked' in quotation marks is that 33.7% was an absolutely pathetic rating for Britain's main Opposition, as we noted at the time. Such a polling number always suggested, on a historical basis and using the very best numbers we could scratch up, a pretty bad defeat. That closer gap that we see from late March to late June 2016? That looks rather like a quick Conservative tumble from around 38% on the eve of Mr Osborne's 2016 Budget (delivered on 16 March) to 33.5% at the moment of the Brexit vote. It looks, in that context, less like a surge in Labour's support, which went up by less than two points between the period immediately preceding the Budget to its molehill-like 'peak' on 1 April.
None of which should be a surprise. Because what had happened in the interim? Oh, just the matter of the most popular Conservative politician in the country coming out against the Conservative Prime Minister's flagship policy on Europe. And the Chancellor's Budget cutting benefits for disabled people, causing the Work and Pensions Secretary to resign. And the Conservative Party (including the Cabinet itself) tearing itself apart over Brexit. Oh, and the Prime Minister admitting that he'd used a tax haven for a family inheritance. That's all. And the Conservatives, by the way, still couldn't throw away their polling lead.
So those posts on Facebook that you see, saying that 'if only it hadn't been for the coup, we'd have been okay'? Those Twitter eggs that pop up telling you that Labour were toe-to-toe with the Tories in the spring of 2016? They are reflecting densely-woven webs of spin shot out by long-serving politicians who should know better, and they are telling not stories but fairytales - all the better not to see themselves with. Actual history, written by actual historians, says something very different.
Yes, we're wasting our breath - we usually are - but Labour was not, ever, 'neck-and-neck with the Tories before the coup'. If anyone says they were, you can link to this page. You can paste up this blogpost. You can quote these figures. You can send them to us. Don't mention it. It's a public service.
Sunday, 19 March 2017
Most politics commentary is impoverished in two ways. It is geographically parochial and temporally anachronistic. It can see neither the big view nor the long view. It is obsessed with the latest rivalries, the newest personalities, the most novel ups and downs. So the Labour Party's deep travails focus on the struggle between its MPs and leader. On the latest reshufflings within constituency parties or in the National Executive Committee. Whatever today's latest bit of shouting involves.
But zoom back, and Labour is actually in the grip of an acute crisis within social democracy itself. And these apparently-insoluble dilemmas are not happening in Britain alone. The Greek Socialists were wiped out by that country's financial crisis. The Dutch Labour Party took a tremendous beating last week. The French Socialists are about to lose the presidency, either to a charismatic centrist or to the far right. At its base, social democratic coalitions have always tried to reach out to everyone (above) - professional people, working people, the young, the old, men and women, all nations within a state - because social progress is thought to benefit everyone. More recently, this has increasingly come to mean finding the glue that will stick the instincts of liberal urban dwellers to more socially conservative voters in small and medium-sized towns. For a number of reasons - large-scale immigration, rapid cultural change, a yawning age gap in the attitudes of the generations, stagnating wages, you name it - those links are coming apart. It may not be possible to hold them together for much longer.
That's just the start of British social democracy's many crises. The Scottish National Party has routed it in its historic fastnesses of urban Scotland. The English nationalism encoded within the United Kingdom Independence Party has tempted away many voters in England's provinces. The rise of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland is another challenge that the entire British state - and its generally redistributive alliance of four unlikely economic partners - is struggling to meet. Okay, the Welsh Nationalists of Plaid Cymru have made but little progress recently (opens as PDF), but Wales is the only part of the UK where political nationalism seems still relatively weak. If it does not serve as a lobby for the poorest parts of the UK - Northern Ireland, say, South Wales, or the Eastern fringes of Glasgow - it is far from clear that Labour has any mission anyway. Want to see how a Labour Party does when all politics is a struggle within and between different visions of 'the nation'? Look no further than the Republic of Ireland, where it has only ever come third.
Labour is also faced with a terrible, tragic dilemma over Brexit, not so much because Labour constituencies were particularly divided between Remain and Leave (Conservative seats were nearly as split), but because so many of the voters Labour has now were Remain, and so many they need in the future were for Leave. Last but not least, Labour has essentially evolved into two parties, which seem to know as little of one another as if they are two nations. The first, made up of long-standing members who joined before 2015, are loyal to a certain idea of the party as a receptacle for progressive, reforming, legislative hopes for incremental change. They want to make the country better gradually. The second, constituted mostly of more recent members, hopes to totally remake at least the party - and, perhaps in some hopeful future, Britain itself - in the heat of a charismatic tilt at social justice at home and peace abroad. They should probably split. They can't, because the electoral system means that they would both suffer more than if they stay together. So both sides have to tolerate a flatshare from hell. There really does now seem little to bind them together. The great trade unions, and in particular the mega-union Unite, would once have formed one bridge across which ideas could cross: but with Unite in the hands of one side of Labour's ongoing civil war, that now seems impossible.
Keep in mind that parties die. Remember that Britain entered the twentieth century with a great, radical, reforming and established party to the left of its centre: the Liberal Party that had done so much to forge Britain's route to modernity itself. It renewed itself during a 'New' Liberal phase of novel ideas about social reform in the run-up to holding power between 1905 and 1916. It struggled to reconcile the competing claims of Irish nationalism and English conservatism. It puzzled over Scottish land reform and the future of the Welsh church. These constitutional issues in turn drained its energies from facing the economic and social questions: forces quietly starting to break up the base of its support among both suburban householders and the urban working classes.
There are troubling echoes there for the way in which 'New' Labour in Opposition and in power found itself increasingly uncertain about the correct balance of forces within the political system, and how its record in power gradually came to seem inimical to sustaining a united, widely appealing programme. It did take the First World War to really sweep the Liberals away, for they had done creditably up until then at combining social reform with rearmament, and economic change with constitutional reform. Reconciling personal liberty with the needs of the state during the age of total war proved to be beyond them. Complex as Brexit will be, the state faces nothing like the challenge of 1914 now.
In a way, though, that's not the point. The lesson is: events can just conspire against you. The atmosphere can change. Sometimes, the work you've done - the work any group or party was designed to do - is over. At the risk of over-determining, any movement can surmount one or two crises. But there's just too many coming at Labour, from too many directions, to see this as anything other than a perfect storm that will leave it out of power for a very, very long time, if not crippled on a semi-permanent basis.
Okay, you could try to speak in a new way (for Labour) - in the language real people use every day, rather than the cod-outraged sub-Marxian jargon than the party's press office uses these days, full of 'revolving doors', 'elites' and 'establishments' that properly reside in the 1960s and 1970s, if they ever existed at all. You might be able to find an answer to the rise of the United Kingdom's many nationalisms by splitting into say, English, Welsh and Scottish Labours - and having your own policies in each jurisdiction. You could meet the challenge of Brexit by moving more strongly in one direction, just as the Conservatives have - though that would need a touch more discipline and self-awareness than all wings of the Labour Party have been demonstrating in recent months. Maybe you could broker a deal between the Soft Left and the Old Right, excluding Blairite and Momentumite extremes from policy-making and administration. Perhaps you could really, really clamp down on the abuse and fury that rains down on even the meekest on social media - all the better to start looking outwards, rather than at the party's own navel.
But at the moment Labour is in more lines of fire than you'd find in a Tarantino film. It's trying and failing to deal with triumphant nationalism, the overarching crisis of Brexit, the increasing gap between social democrats and the blue-collar working people they've always relied on, cities and exurbs that are drifting apart, the bitter and probably irrevocable split in the party between the 40% of more long-standing members and the 60% who've just arrived (or come back), the development of tight-knit but cramped social media communities who are impervious to news or views from outside their own moral universe.
It's too much. It can't be done. We've looked at the data many times (and we'll be taking another in-depth look again next month). That's bad enough. But when you take a really cold look at the structural, intellectual and political elements - when analysis is pressed into use, to explain the report of mere numbers - the picture looks even darker. The situation for reformist social democracy - the rock on which the Labour Party historically stands - is bleaker than it has been at any point since the Second World War. Parties mostly shy away from the brink. They usually find some way to come back. It took just seven years for the Conservatives to recover from the chaos engulfing them under Iain Duncan Smith. But as the 'New' Liberal example shows, sometimes political parties are pitched into extinction. Labour is hesitating between the two options. Its many crises do not make for optimism.
Sunday, 12 March 2017
Anyone who really knows a subject winces when Ministers talk about it. Internet security? Here's a Snooper's Charter that will build up a great big database hackers can steal. Higher Education? Here's some really tight and stupid limits on the numbers of (fee paying) foreign students you can take. Oh, and by the way, here's some ridiculous metrics of teaching quality that'll never work, and don't tell you much about teaching anyway. Austerity? Told over and over and over again that this won't close the deficit on the timescale the Government pretends to believe it will, Ministers go on reducing current spending. Early on in their ill-fated drive towards a much smaller state, they even pruned back productive capital expenditure at a time of very low interest rates. And so on.
It's the same when professional historians look at what politicians say about the past. In fact, it's even worse, because Ministers when they blunder into this sphere don't have civil servants to advise or constrain them. They don't have a load of briefing notes, or binders full of reports, keeping them at least in the neighbourhood of the straight and narrow. They show off their preconceptions and prejudices, sometimes for good, but often demonstrating a very dispiriting lack of grip on reality itself.
The latest example of this is one of the most illuminating: Trade Secretary Liam Fox (above) and his apparent desire to forge the Commonwealth into a sort of nostalgic new-old trading bloc to replace the European Union. That all looks a bit desperate in policy terms, actually, and not only because it comes from Mr Fox, no stranger to less-than-edifying controversy and disgrace himself. For one thing, such a strategy would give Commonwealth nations such as Australia and India a gold-plated opportunity to run the board on the Brits if the UK does look likely to crash out of the EU without a deal. The amount of trade that Britain does with them already is also puny compared to links with its European neighbours. And many countries - particularly poorer Commonwealth nations - are not even that keen on what sceptical civil servants have apparently dubbed 'Empire 2.0'. Why should they help Britain sell them a load of cars in return for slightly better terms on Britain's commodity imports? There would seem to be no better way for them to worsen their terms of trade.
Mr Fox says that he doesn't use the term 'Empire 2.0', and nor does he want civil servants to use it. That would apparently belittle Britain's global role, rather than its post-Imperial identity. He has form in just this sphere, though, having tweeted in 2016 that 'the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history'. It's a statement that will lead almost all professional, responsible and reflective historians to scratch their heads and say: er, we're not sure that's quite right. For British Ministers to claim that they don't have anything that they might be embarrassed about, or which many people might choose to forget, is a frankly bizarre assertion.
Let's tread carefully. Condemning and judging, rather than understanding, risks the fatal historical error of anachronism. Your analysis is not going to get very far if you just say how terrible it all was. And Britain's Empire was a complicated thing - a huge, multifarious, many-faced enterprise that lasted hundreds of years. So it's important to go lightly here. No doubt it was better to be governed by the British than (for instance) the Belgians in the Congo. Of course British administrators and settlers became less rapacious as the idea of a 'liberal empire', preparing new states for independence, gained a hold in the twentieth century - though we still wouldn't have recommended getting in their way. During the 1950s, many Kenyans found to their cost just how nasty the sting that remained in the British tail could be - a dark and brutal story that was then covered up for many decades, until historians dragged it into the light.
The final acts of the British Empire also became apparently self-mitigating acts of abrogation and heroism in the British mindset - perhaps one reason why the British public still perceive the Empire-Commonwealth through a warm glow of nostalgia and regret for its passing. The 'Spitfire Summer', in which Britain 'stood alone', in the end seemed for many to wash off the guilt of Empire itself. John Maynard Keynes said famously that 'we saved ourselves, and we helped save the world'. There's a lot of truth to that. But it's also more than important to note that it was the British Empire that 'stood alone', not just the peoples of the United Kingdom. Caribbean airmen fighting in the skies above the South of England; Indian soldiers in North Africa; Australian infantrymen in Burma and at the fall of Singapore: they were taking the brunt of the disaster just as much as were the British themselves.
So was the British Empire really a free-trading group of complementary peoples? Is Britain really unique among Europeans because it 'does not need to bury its 20th century history'? No. No-one should be burying any history, least of all the British. The Amritsar Massacre of 1919, the ferocious attempt to suppress opposition in what became the Irish Free State, the catastrophic Partition of the British Indian Empire, the nuclear testing programme in Australia, the Suez debacle of 1956 - none of them covered anyone in glory, that's for sure. Each was by turns a toxic mix of the violent, the destructive, the negligent and the chaotic. Each speaks to Imperialism's deeply interwoven history of arrogance, greed and hatred.
There's a lot of wishful thinking about these days. According to Mrs Thatcher's biographer Charles Moore, Britain might now become a grounded semi-idyll rather like The Shire in J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings - an honest place of attachment and belonging, where no doubt yeoman farmers labour manfully in the service of a rightful order. Melanie Phillips has brought her trademark historical insight to the party by claiming that Britain is a 'real' nation in a way that, say, the Republic of Ireland is not. We should have the courage to call this out for what it is: baloney. It's a comforting warm bath of half-facts and thinly-remembered pasts that never did exist and never could have existed.
It's not just an academic argument. Good history is essential to evidence-based public policy. Our view of the past tells us what we think of the present, and by extension the future. If we really start to believe that Britain once ruled over happy groups of merchant adventurers, a band of fellow-feeling settlers and subject peoples set on their way to liberty, we will make a grave blunder. We might, in terms of our broad preconceptions, start to forget the real suffering that the British have inflicted on the world - something to weigh alongside all the good that they have done, whenever and wherever we write about it all.
But there's also a more acute danger - a pressing one that's relevant to the Government's choices right now. That is to see the victors at Blenheim and Waterloo, the people who lived under first a Dutch and then a German monarchy, the land with French law and language, the people who defeated European fascism and framed the European Convention on Human Rights, as a power that has always engaged in Empire rather than the continent they must still call home. That has never been an adequate picture of British history. Today, more than ever, it should not be meekly accepted just because some amateur politicians and commentators want to use the past for their own ends.
Monday, 6 March 2017
One thing we know about public numbers is that they have to be built up via art and artistry, as well as science. You don’t just go and capture them in the wild, like they’re some form of easily-displayed and gawp-inducing new specimen for the zoo. The next thing we know? Context is all. It’s the same in every field. How big is that exoplanet? What does that mean in comparison to the Earth? How big is the sun it’s orbiting? What might that mean for its atmosphere, the potential for water on the surface, the likelihood of life?
One context is historical. Okay, economic growth looks like it’s enough to keep unemployment low, but how fast or slow is it against the longer-term averages? The usual level of growth since the Great Disruption of 2007-2008? The mean scores since the Second World War? Only then can you know what you’re really looking at.
That’s why we look at election results (and opinion polls) in the same way. It’s all very well being quite some way ahead, as Labour were in the last Parliament, but what does that mean? We wasted our breath then pointing out that Labour had to rise quite a bit further before they looked likely to win a General Election, and we probably still are, but it’s worth a go. We’ll be returning to this theme in April, when we take our regular look at how the Government and the Opposition are doing when measured against the standards of the modern era (which roughly means since about 1970). But for now, it might help to take yet another look at the Copeland and Stoke Central byelections in a wider, longer – and statistically marginal, rather than binary – context.
Now, stop us if you’ve heard this before. We know that we looked last time at just how bad these two results were for a serving Opposition. There’s really been nothing like Copeland, especially, since on some measures the nineteenth century. You could fill a page with words like ‘appalling’, ‘disastrous’, ‘humiliating’ and ‘catastrophic’. That’d be about the measure of it. But that doesn’t seem all that helpful, to be honest. Anyone can write a faux-Biblical and mock-ominous paragraph of doom. Believe us: we have. But what is the exact scale and scope of Labour’s byelection performance, both in Stoke and Copeland, and more broadly over the past couple of years?
Here's where we can deploy at least some sense of statistical clarity. This time, and for the chart above, we’ve looked at various Oppositions’ byelection performances over the second and third calendar years of each Parliament. First, we’ve looked at the performance of those Oppositions that were later successful in winning power: Mr Heath and Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1974-79, John Smith and Tony Blair’s Labour in 1992-97, and David Cameron’s Conservatives from 2005 to 2010. As a comparator, we’ve included the byelection performance of Ed Miliband’s Labour in 2010-15: an Opposition that appeared to be doing okay (but no better) in byelections at this point in the cycle, and was competitive in the opinion polls, but which ultimately fell short when it came to the crunch of a real General Election.
What do we find? Well, successful Oppositions should be hoping for big, big movements towards them. That’s not much of a surprise, but it’s nice to see it confirmed in the actual numbers. Both Heath and Thatcher, and Smith and Blair, were posting swings from the main governing party of over ten per cent – of 11.8% in the first case, and a spectacular 14.9% in the second. David Cameron was getting some sort of swing at the same stage of the electoral cycle we’re at now (approaching the halfway point), but it was much lower – at about 4%. It won’t escape your attention, either, that the scale of those swings bore quite a strong relationship to the subsequent full-scale election. Mrs Thatcher won a modest but workable majority in 1979; Tony Blair triumphed in 1997, gaining Labour’s biggest-ever majority in a remarkable landslide; David Cameron, who wasn’t doing quite so well at this stage in terms of Westminster byelections, had to settle for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. At some point we’ll try to write a full-scale piece about the formal relationship between these numbers and General Election vote shares since 1945 (or encourage someone else to do it), but for now we can just say that the bigger the swing at this point, the more likely subsequent electoral success seems.
Clearly that doesn’t always hold. Ed Miliband was doing better in 2011-12 than Mr Cameron was in 2006-07. You can enter all sorts of caveats here. There were fewer byelections in 2006-07 than during 2011-12: there were just five such contests in the former period, compared to the twelve held during Mr Miliband's second and third years as Leader of the Opposition. Three out of those five battles took place on very unfertile ground for the Conservatives (Dunfermiline and West Fife, Blaenau Gwent and Sedgefield). Even so, we should note that there’s clearly only a rough and ready relationship between doing well in these elections, and then going on to form a government.
So these comparisons aren’t perfect, or always tightly predictive. However, and given Labour’s performance recently, what they are is very suggestive. Over 2016 and 2017, there have so far been eight Westminster byelections. and the Opposition has on average made no progress at all against the Government. Indeed, they have gone backwards: there has been a very small (0.65%) swing towards the Conservative Party. And things have got a lot worse since Britain voted to leave the European Union. The swing to the Conservatives is 3.9% since the summer of 2016, and an average of 4.35% in Copeland and Stoke. The evidence is that Labour’s performance in these byelections is steadily getting worse – just as its poll ratings have been slowing deflating since the April of 2016. But it was anaemic, and deeply concerning, long before that. The only place where Labour have even come close to matching what remember was only its average performance under Ed Miliband is Tooting in June 2016, where they achieved a swing of 7.25% towards them. Since we know from polling and last year’s Mayoral election that Labour’s support has not retreated in the capital to the extent it might have done elsewhere, that’s yet another confirmation of everything else we thought we knew from what data we have.
No Opposition in the modern age has taken power without getting quite a swing towards them in Westminster byelections held at this stage of the Parliament. No party has fully and without help replaced another in Downing Street with a move towards it that was below double digits. At the moment, the tide is flowing quickly in the other direction – just about as quickly, actually, as it was towards David Cameron in 2006-07. Don’t trust polls? Trust real votes. The picture is pitch black and still darkening for Prime Minister Theresa May’s opponents, and they know it.
Monday, 27 February 2017
Sometimes we get stuff wrong. Well, quite a lot of the time actually. But speculation - even inaccurate speculation - is part of how we learn. So it is with the UK Labour Party's loss of Copeland in Cumbria, and the swing against the party recorded in Stoke-on-Trent Central. We said that Labour probably wouldn't lose either seat. History was against such an outcome. The data said that serving governments just don't win by-elections against the official Opposition. They certainly don't in the seventh year of an austerity regime that has just spent months tearing itself apart over Brexit. You know what? Theresa May's Conservatives did it. They had a phenomenally good night, not only taking Copeland for the first time since the 1930s (above), but blunting the United Kingdom Independence Party's challenge in Stoke too. There shouldn't be any champagne left within a five-mile radius of Conservative Central Office. We said it couldn't happen. It did. Sorry.
It's time now, therefore, to turn to what those results mean. First, Labour's good news. UKIP probably aren't going to smash their way through Labour's heartlands in the same way that the Scottish National Party have done in Scotland. They had a pretty torrid time of it in Stoke, with their leader battered by a string of allegations that he had been, well... not entirely measured in everything he had said. Their vote went up only a tiny bit, in a seat which had voted heavily for Leave in the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. Their vote fell in Copeland. They're not going to be taking many Labour seats any time soon. Their brand is just too toxic. The entire reason for choosing them on the ballot is rapidly diminishing as Mrs May steals all their ideas. Their pivot from seeking Conservative votes, to wooing Labour defectors, just seems too crude. Her Majesty's Opposition is going to be Labour's title for as far as the eye can see.
The really depressing thing for Labour comes when we look at why that is. It's because the Conservatives did so well. UKIP weren't able to persuade Conservatives to vote tactically for them in Stoke, where Labour's vote share was actually lower than in Copeland. The Conservatives outstripped their recent performances in both seats, confirming that they really are riding as high in the polls as it appears. In fact, given that the Copeland swing was bigger than that implied by polls (part of the reason we thought that Labour would probably cling on there), opinion polling might still be rather underrating them.
Now Copeland is a special place. The nuclear industry is critically important to its economy, and Trident is important in the south of the seat. No doubt that hurt a party led by Jeremy Corbyn, with decades of opposition to the nuclear industry and nuclear weapons behind him. But the really scary thing for Labour is not the industrial mix in Copeland. It's the class mix. It's quite a working-class seat, and the party that sees itself as standing up for those people's interests and ideas just lost it - badly. Working class voters have been drifting away from Labour since the early 2000s, of course, but the trend of disillusionment and disengagement now seems to be accelerating. Take a look at the very latest YouGov opinion poll (opens as PDF), and you'll see that the Conservatives lead Labour in the C2DE social class category by ten percentage points (38 per cent to 28 per cent). Labour are just nine points ahead of UKIP with these voters. They're filing out of the Labour tent. Gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, but steadily, lots of traditional Labourites are just switching off. The new model Labour Party always tried to claim that it might be able to win elections by raising turnout. That looks a distant, forlorn prospect right now. Reader, we're prepared to bet that turnout in (by then ex-) Labour areas will be low indeed by 2020.
What did we say, back in January? Well, this: if Labour did lose one, and especially both, of these seats 'they probably face a defeat that cannot even be described as a catastrophe. Such a result would be a sign of impending cataclysm: the opening of a political black hole from which there may be no escape'. Now that might be a bit overcooked, actually, especially given UKIP's complete failure to move forward on any front. But there is now at least the possibility, at one end of the bell curve, of an actual Labour meltdown. Mr Corbyn is in all likelihood going nowhere. He's entrenched as leader, and he can't be removed. He's ludicrously unpopular overall, and he's dragging down his party, though among better-off Britons Labour isn't doing quite as badly as it is amongst those aforementioned C2DEs, and it's at least holding out in London and some other big cities. Eyewitness accounts in Stoke back up the numbers: among young people and students, Corbyn-Labour is pretty popular. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of such voters to prevent a really thumping marmalisation in a General Election, and in the age of Individual Electoral Registration, all-expat voting and a rapidly ageing population, their significance is about to depreciate rather than increase.
This is not the likeliest outcome, by any means, but a 1931-style rout cannot now be ruled out. Flying blind with a comms team that seems able only to speak in a weird kind of pseudo-English fixated on 'bargain-basement tax havens' (whatever that means), and which spends its limited time on this earth threatening parents with their own children's death, is... sub-optimal. As they put up utter neophytes for trial by interview, and go on being 'directed' by a 'Shadow Cabinet' totally unmatched to the task before them, the risk of Labour's complete annihilation seems to grow by the day, if not by the hour. A General Election campaign might be fronted by Mr Corbyn losing his rag with reporters and John McDonnell shouting at imaginary plotters, backed up by amateur dilettantes unable to get even the most basic press release out in a timely fashion. If that does happen, the Conservatives could well end up with a 1930s-style clean sweep. Copeland is a warning: a clear siren of danger in the blue skies and the sharp air of February. All democrats - all citizens who believe in a viable multi-party system, in electoral competition, and in good governance - should listen. Heed the warning, before it's too late.