Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Is General Election victory really in Labour's own internests?

As the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) surge continues, and Labour's number's continue to fade away like morning mist, the two 'main' Westminster parties do now seem to be running neck-and-neck in the race to Downing Street. Actually, our present governors are better placed to go for another five years: there are a lot more ex-Conservative voters in that UKIP pile than there are in Labour's, so any reversal in UKIP's fortunes will help Prime Minister David Cameron's re-election bid much more than it will assist Ed Miliband's (above) quest for No. 10. Thest best statistical models we have show that there is rather more likelihood of a Conservative-led administration continuing after May than there is a Labour-dominated one taking office. Labour's latest disappointing numbers, reported at the start of this week, will only reinforce that impression. That's no surprise to readers of Public Policy and the Past, of course, who have long known that a Labour victory is less likely than the traditional commentariat would have you believe. But you know what? This might be Labour's great escape. This might be a good election to lose.

Now you could have said this about almost every General Election since 1945. Had the Conservatives won that time, they would have run into a massive power crisis and a dollar convertibility disaster. Had they won in 1974, they would have faced asking the International Monetary Fund in to help out. Only the elections of 1951 and 1997 look good ones to win, given the sunny economic conditions that then prevailed and the subsequent eras' advances towards some - and only some - of the sunlit uplands of prosperity.

But there do seem to be specific reasons to be doubtful, this time, whether victory really is in Labour's own interests. Everywhere you look, the party faces a plausible enemy - to a far greater extent than Mr Cameron's Conservatives, who would in Opposition be able to regroup around a right-wing leadership and outflank some of UKIP's wilder promises. Labour faces what looks like an existential threat from the Scottish National Party north of Berwick and Carlisle. Its blue-collar fortresses in the north of England are clearly vulnerable to UKIP. It might be pushed out of the South of England entirely by a combination of the Conservatives, a rejuvenated set of Liberal Democrats freed from the burdens of office, and Greens appealing to left-leaning city dwellers. It simply does not have the resources to fight on all those fronts at once. By-election and council defeats would very quickly leave it clinging to office, shorn of confidence as well as authority. The Callaghan administration of 1976-79 is a good example, if you want to look back.

Any Miliband government will very likely be a minority administration (just as Jim Callaghan's was), perhaps reliant on Social Democratic and Labour MPs from Northern Ireland, Plaid Cymru and the acquiescence of the Lib Dems for the oxygen of Parliamentary survival. Could it really slow down all the cuts, lift wages and reform benefits in a way likely to bring it up from the low 30s - where it now seems permanently stuck? With this inheritance? With this less-than-popular leadership? Probably not. Not with the massive debt stock that has recently started growing again, rather than shrinking. Not while the Eurozone crisis looks like rumbling on for many more years, Chinese, Indian and Brazilian growth seems to be slowing down, and the international banking system still seems so vulnerable to the slightest knock.

It's a doleful spectace, really, not just because of the present administration's a disasterthon in so many areas (Universal Credit? Work Capability? Defence cuts? Courts 'reform'? Tuition fees? The badger cull? Can any government really be re-elected on the back of such a trail of error?) But most of all because the Conservative Party has done nothing that it said it would. In Opposition, Prime Minister David Cameron promised to be a more caring type of Conservative than British voters had got used to for so many years, letting 'sunshine win the day'. He also promised to lead 'the greenest government in history'. And yet food banks have become an alarmingly integral part of welfare policy as Work and Pensions officials increasingly sanction individuals failing to meet each and every target and deadline they're given. And under pressure from local activists, Mr Cameron's Communities Secretary is increasingly vetoing every onshore wind farm that he can get his hands on - even as the public show in every opinion poll that's every been conducted that they're in favour of them, and threat of power outages and blackouts grows and grows. The Conservatives' flight rightwards, under the pressure of the UKIP challenge, has been a rapid cavalcade to behold. A big cloud of political dust has been left in the air as they've ceded the centre ground. If Labour were a better Opposition, they'd be doomed.

So Labour can be patient, and continue to rebuild. Sooner or later this version of the Conservative brand will collapse under its own weight of contradiction, rather like the George W. Bush edition of Compassionate Conservatism 1.0 did in the Senate elections of 2006. President Bush had promised to govern from the centre. He didn't, in case you hadn't noticed. And at the end of six years of what they hadn't voted for, American voters took their revenge in the Senate elections of that year, handing an enormous battering to the younger President Bush's Republicans. Control of the Senate was knocked out of their hands, perhaps until they gain it back (on a temporary basis) next week. Eight years in the wilderness is a long time. If the Conservatives go on like this, they'll do further permanent damage to a brand that is already toxic to the majority of voters. They'll be left out in the cold, too. Eventually.

Labour might be better off waiting until that decisive moment when the dam breaks. Winning power back in the spring of 2015 just looks like a dangerous gamble with the party's very existence.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Britain's narrow elite

The recent controversy about Fiona Woolf's (above) appointment as the head of the UK's historical child abuse inquiry is extremely revealing about just how we're governed. For she didn't think to mention, until it was too late, that she had social links to Leon Brittan, Home Secretary when a lot of these allegations first surfaced. Many of the victims involved feel very upset indeed - as if they have been misled and cheated by an 'establishment' that little cares about what they think.

Mrs Woolf is a tough, experienced, respected lawyer who will no doubt do a good job at hearing and weighing up all the evidence. There is no suggestion of any impropriety on her part whatsoever, and indeed the witch-hunt against her is hardly the stuff of good governance in itself. But the fact that no-one even thought that her social connections to people already mentioned as linked to all those scandals might be a problem - the fact that the routine minglings and gatherings of the great and the good are seen as entirely natural and understandable in a certain kind of light - is just another good indication of how narrowly governed we are.

This idea of an 'establishment' is hardly new. Public inquiries and Royal Commissions have always been appointed from amidst the ranks of the great and the good. Lady Plowden was reputedly asked to look into the future of primary schools during the 1960s after sitting next to Education Secretary Edward Boyle at a dinner party. There are so many of these dinner parties when you're well-heeled, aren't there? It's a wonder that our governors ever manage to do any work.

Anyway, back to that 'establishment'. It's heavily interconnected, highly intermarried, starkly different from the rest of the population - and very, very small. Just a few thousand people constitute the movers and shakers of the British policy-making community across Whitehall, in management consultancy and accountancy firms, inside some big corporations, among the staffs of large banks (and their regulators) and across the law and the top 'old' professions. Many of them went to Oxford or Cambridge Universities (over a quarter of our MPs did so), and to private schools (just over a third of the same group). Many of the parties' front bench spokesmen and women studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford - a general degree in governing, perhaps, but also one delivered by a small coterie of academics in and of itself. It's a qualification that also validates quick thinking, clever briefing, rapid drafting and the speedy collation of arguments - just right for a civil servant, or a politician in a hole. But not very likely to produce original thinking. Or - just perhaps - an empathetic sense of your decisions' impact and images out beyond the groupthink of an administrative cadre the boundaries of which are just far, far too selectively drawn. We should point out that Mrs Woolf herself went took her undergraduate degree at less-glamorous Keele, but the point about her appointment and Whitehall's reaction to the subsequent criticism still holds.

Now this is not an organised group in any real sense of the word, still less an ordered conspiracy that owes its power to the (undoubtedly powerful) naked greed of the City of London or such clapped-out ex-constitutional powerhouses as monarchy or aristocracy. Owen Jones' recent (and much argued-over) book, The Establishment, probably overplays that part of its influence and its meaning. It's not a system that's keeping a single party in power. Far from it. Both the Conservatives and Labour are to some extent tight-knit groupings of clans - networks of friendship and connection - rather than the like-minded: for every Conservative who went to Eton, there are many, many Labour officials who met each other at Oxford. One can't move among the memoirs of New Labour's days in power (spin doctor Damian McBride's fascinating Power Trip, for instance) without reading 'so and did their degree with this person', or 'this staffer went to this college with this civil servant'. The like-minded will always flock together. And in some ways such people represent where Britain is going - socially liberal, well-travelled, relaxed about cultural transfer and migration, confident, IT savvy and able to keep what Peter Hennessy has termed the 'hidden wiring' of the UK constitution on the road. To mix our metaphors.

But this is also a self-reinforcing, self-referential, overlapping set of over-confident, over-propertied cliques that has now become dangerously distant from great big tracts of what one might call 'real', gritty, workaday Britain - the east coast towns where the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are enjoying such success, among those young, educated urban workers struggling for make ends meet to whom the Greens are currently appealing, or with those ex-Labour voters in the central belt of Scotland who feel that no party has done them any favours for decades. Wages have now pretty much fallen every single year since the beginning of the financial crisis. The intermarried and the intereducated might be acceptable as your leaders in the good times. But what if incomes continue to decline for another two years? Five? Ten? The anger of the average voter will go on mounting.

That's why charlatans such as the Scottish independence campaigner Tommy Sheridan, the Respect MP George Galloway and even the entertainer-turned-moral-philosopher Russell Brand can attract support. It's why the Scottish National Party and UKIP are enjoying such success.

Because what they can both witheringly call 'Westminster' now represents more of a governing outlook and a set of shared prejudices, than a site of contestation across class and ideological lines. The three biggest parties are now more gathering points of graduate governors than they are vehicles for the expression of class, geographical or ideological views. Yes, they live in the policy-making world of marginal and hard choices (unlike Brand or UKIP), but also have more in common with each other than they do with the people that they are supposed to govern.

And that's a real problem.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Britain and the European Court of Human Rights: another lorryload of 'promises' that will never be kept

All governments suffer setbacks, make huge mistakes, and drop huge clangers. It's a fact of life. It's comforting, actually, that our apparent masters are just like us: badly organised, uncertain, exhausted and confused.

But this administration's making dropping bricks into an art form. Everything it touches seems to turn to dust. Universal credit? A total catastrophe from start to finish - to the extent that it even exists. Workplace benefits? In chaos. Macroeconomic policy? Every single debt and credit target missed. Every single one, accompanied only by Ministers covering their ears and shouting 'la, la, la, sticking to Plan A'. Which they haven't. The National Health Service? Brought low by a totally unnecessary and confused reorganisation imposed from the top. And don't get us started on the disastrous and counter-productive badger cull - a particular hobby horse of 'Public Policy and the Past' over the years.

Now it's onto the European Court of Human Rights (above), long derided by right-wing commentators as a storehouse of judicial aggression and attacks on Britain's sovereignty. The Conservative parts of the Government want to wrest back the power to veto its decisions, and (if that doesn't work) to withdraw altogether. You can leave aside the accepted fact that most of the cases now cited as making the Court vexacious to us Brits are total fabrications or misrepresentations. The famous case of the man who couldn't be deported because he loved his cat too much was just made up. Conservative proposals for a Britain-only Bill of Rights would do nothing at all to affect prisoners' 'right' to vote, whatever one thinks of the rights and wrongs of that particular issue. If you don't believe me, you can look at a laywers' full-on critique of the Conservatives' much-derided policy document here.

No. The lies aren't the real tragedy here. That's two-fold: first, the betrayal of a great Conservative tradition, one identified with Winston Churchill himself, and one which has helped to spread peace and liberty across our continent; and, second, the sheer tawdriness and poor drafting of these proposals themselves, even taken on their own terms. In just the same way that the badger cull is a disaster even assuming that badgers spread tuberculosis to cattle (you knew that'd appear somewhere below the headlines, didn't you?), ECHR 'reform' won't do anything that the Conservatives say it will.

Well, first things first. The reason many sensible Conservatives such as Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve are very worried about these ideas is that they are attacks on truly Conservative concepts - the rule of law, the limitation of the state's influence, the division of powers. It was a Conservative lawyer, David Maxwell Fyfe, who played one of the key roles in drafting the Convention in the first place - partly because he wanted to constrain the march of socialism, and the threat of arbitrary government, at home. The Convention's concepts - that everyone has the right to a domestic life, to freedom of religion, to security of the person against the authorities - have ever since been associated with the proudest boasts of the Conservative Party (opens as PDF). That it defends liberty. That is believes in the self. That it opposes arbitrary government. Like them or loathe them, those concepts matter. The Conservatives seem happy to trash their own brand (again), but in so doing they are also besmirching a certain idea of Britishness too.

Now let's move on to tragedy number two: poor drafting and sloppy thinking. The actual policy paper that civil servants are now going to be asked to work on seems to have been written by a hungover A-Level intern. Nothing in it makes any sense, especially when you stand back and look at the farcically error-strewn document as a whole. It's too vague to mean anything beyond a single press headline: 'we don't like Europe much'. The next thing you know, Whitehall officials will be despatched to check whether bears really do defecate in wooded areas.

Here's just some random thoughts that the Conservative staffers seem not to have thought of: there can be no 'pick and choose' approach to the ECHR (this is a link to a Labour Party press release, which we wouldn't usually use, but it is a legal opinion issued by QCs). Either you're in, or you're out. The 'veto' idea is impossible and unworkable, because if you sign, you sign. If the UK does intend to pass legislation giving British courts the so-called 'power' to take account of British laws 'above' the European Convention, that will cause legal chaos as they have to go line-by-line through statute that both is and is not binding - a kind of Schrodinger's Law that could never work. We could go on forever, really.

The Conservative policy paper also asserts that 'British courts' will now make the final decision, not the European ones. Er, no. Wrong again. Only if you leave altogether. Otherwise, the Court will go on judging and making decisions, which will then be enforced in British law whatever statute you've passed to try to mitigate that standing fact. If partisan staffers weren't so busy posturing (and bullying civil servants into writing up some more of this nonsense), they'd admit that straight away. If we do go down this path, the UK will have to leave the Conventional altogether, while still being forced to recognise all the chunks of the Convention that are encoded into international law - and still having all these ideas and precedents read and effected by British judges more keenly aware of their European colleagues' than a bunch of mere Ministers.

And here's the next flaw: ECHR clearance is built into the Scottish devolution legislation and the laws that undergirdle the Northern Ireland peace process. Given that the Westminster leaders' recent 'vow' to Scotland involves making the Holyrood Parliament permanent, are they going to legislate to completely change its constitutional status? Do they want to unpick the fragile peace at Stormont as well, especially at a time when the power-sharing executive is struggling to deal with the cuts it's been asked to make? Are they hell. So Scotland and Northern Ireland can't and won't be covered by such reform. Any cases that sprawl across those intra-UK boundaries? Welcome to your worst legal nightmare.

Honestly. The UK is full of legal and constitutional academics - not to mention whole tribes of lawyers - who are now used to dark laughter at everything that comes out of the Ministry of Justice. It's either that, or the crying - which is what it might come to in the end. It's just increasingly apparent that an ever-more-unhappy MoJ (introduced recently by Private Eye as 'a nest of mendacious backstabbers') is headed rapidly downhill given its budget and staffing cuts - and the unpopular, blinkered leadership of a deeply disliked Secretary of State.

Leave aside the rights and wrongs of the case. British courts are probably capable of holding Ministers to account. The British legal system is robust. If we were starting from Year Zero, a supranational convention might not be necessary. But look at things as a historian does - as moving forward in time, and increasingly encrusted with the residue of commitment and events, as well as mired in complexity. Then you can see that the harm to Britain's reputation, and the legal neutron bomb that we would be unleashing on ourselves, just makes this proposal totally counter-productive.

It's just like the Govenrment's public spending 'plans', which reside in a similarly fantastical non-space, and must cause sleepless nights for Treasury civil servants who might actually have to implement some of them. European Court of Human Rights 'reform' will never happen. Conservative Ministers will say 'sorry, we don't have the majority for that', or 'the Liberal Democrats won't let us do that'. Then they'll breathe a sigh of relief and retire to bed, their sleep ruffled only by the nightmare that they might actually have to implement all the crazy policies that they're now signed up to.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

General Election 2015: a constitutional car-crash in the making?

No-one seems to like professional politicians any more. Actually, they haven't for some while, and the personal ratings of Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major at their nadirs made pretty horrendous reading - not quite as bad as Ed Miliband's and Nick Clegg's numbers, to be sure, but bad, bad, bad, all the same.

Still, the disintegration of past class allegiances, regional identities, ideological narratives and past voting loyalties do all seem to be accelerating. About half of all voters will probably make up their minds on General Election 2015 right up close to the day itself - as they did in 2010. Younger voters (though, to be honest, many of them aren't registered, let alone likely to actually cast a ballot) are the most likely to change their views.

Which opens up an opportunity - for the United Kingdom Independence Party, of course, which now looks likely to take maybe between four and ten seats in May. But also for the Greens, who could perhaps seize one more (in Norwich South, perhaps?) on the basis of their increasingly impressive polling and on-the-ground efforts. And lastly for the Scottish National Party, which might make it to twelve to eighteen seats on the back of sympathetic Labour-leaning 'yes' voters and the Liberal Democrat collapse which helped them so much in the Holyrood election of 2011.

All of which will leave us with a pretty confusing House of Commons, that's for sure. All of our most powerful statistical models now have a Hung Parliament, with no party in overall control, nailed on as a certainty. It would take a pretty unlikely electoral upheaval to put David Cameron or Ed Miliband in total control of the lower chamber (above).

Take a look at the numbers. Let's assume 5 UKIP members, 18 SNP members, 30 Liberal Democrats and 2 Green MPs. Not so far from potential reality given the numbers we have right now. Now let's say that there are 3 Plaid Cymru MPs, and the 13 Northern Ireland Members who (unlike Sinn Fein) will take up their seats at Westminster. that gives us 73 MPs who do not owe allegiance to the 'big two',

Now let's have a think about where Labour and the Conservatives might get to. Perhaps the Conservatives will make it to 290 seats, and Labour to 283. At the moment, our glide path towards early May is taking us to somewhere around that.

No stable coalition will be possible. You need to get to around 322 seats to control the House of Commons with a majority of one, given the neutral speaker, and the non-attending Sinn Fein members. The Conservatives plus the Liberal Democrats would nearly get there, with 320 MPs, If you throw in an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party, you might see an overall working majority of 12. But it seems unlikely, given the still-radioactive nature of Northern Ireland politics, that the Conservatives would want to go into formal coalition with the DUP. On the other hand Labour, plus the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the three SDLP members and the one Alliance MP from Northern Ireland (and two Greens) would equal 322. A working majority of one, while holding all those parties together? No chance.

In days gone by, there would have been two elections in 2015 to try to sort this out. Or perhaps another contest in the spring of 2016. But there's less chance of that now, for the absurd and dangerously muddled Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011 (opens as PDF) mandates that only a two-thirds majority of MPs can dissolve Parliament. So the minority can hold a gun to the head of the sitting government, saying 'go on then, keep governing, keep getting more unpopular, keep on muddling through and putting sick MPs through the lobbies. You're just where we want you'. So we could potentially see a struggling government labour (or, indeed, Labour) on, mortally wounded, for year after year.

Now it's true that the Act also stipulates that a dissolution has to take place if a government can't be formed after fourteen days, so (for instance) a battered Cameron or Theresa May-led government might choose to take to the life rafts and force Labour to take up the reins of power. For who would want to say 'no, we can't do it' and trigger an immediate appointment with an impatient electorate?  Would a broke Labour Party, under an unpopular leader, really risk another contest against a cash-rich Conservative grouping under new leadership? Nope. The Opposition would have to get into those ministries and try to make it work, as a minority if necessary. But it wouldn't take long for that new minority Labour or 'rainbow' government to run into trouble as well. And we'd be right back to square one.

So we'd be stuck, potentially for some time, with a malfunctioning Parliament. That's why there's been some early speculation about a Grand Coalition between the Conservatives and Labour, or perhaps a Labour and Liberal Democrat deal with the SNP to provide confidence and supply - basically, a promise not to bring the Government down.

But there's no doubt about it. The General Election of 2015 is threatening to produce only deadlock - and a great deal of constitutional pain.

Monday, 13 October 2014

UKIP's not-so-usable past

Narratives and stories matter more in politics than any mere policies ever have.

And that's what the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and its grinning leader, Nigel Farage (above) really show us when we examine recent elections. For their spectacular victory in this year's elections to the European Parliament, their triumph in Conservative Clacton and near-triumph in Labour Heywood and Middleton, tells us much about the world that many fellow citizens want to live in.

What UKIP carefully evoke and then appeal to - on the Left as much as the Right - is a world of certainty. Of connection. Place and space and warmth and fellow-feeling and above all community. For there can be little doubt that many voters are struggling right now. We have lived through nearly all of a Parliament in which real wages have risen in one month in four-and-a-half years. We are living through a period of globalisation that is scattering old certainties - about nation, economy, society, land, travel, health and wealth - to the four winds. And in which the complacent main Westminster parties just say 'it's all right, steady as she goes, with a bit of a tinker here and a tidy there, all will be well'.

Well, many Britons don't think it will be, and they rather like the sound of an anti-party - a new-old source of authority that's just enough like a party to pull some thin shreds of credibility around its nonsensical policy agenda.

But it's all based on a mythic past - on a 1950s when a Dixon of Dock Green might clip you round the ear; when you didn't have to lock your doors; when you knew your neighbours; and when your neighbours were like you. When you went to work, nine to five, your wages went up every year, and things felt better every time you went to the polls. When - Labour or Conservative - you were proud of being 'British'. A sheltered world of order and peace and plenty.

It's baloney. Historians should stand up and say: this world never existed, and where and when it did, it didn't make everybody happy anyway. As Paul Mason has put it today, you might have known more people in your street, but Britain 'was also [part of] a world of repression, pointless hierarchies, sexism, racism and absolutely rampant homophobia'. And whoever said that recognising more local faces made you feel more secure? Let us point you to ex-Home Secretary Alan Johnson's superb memoir of growing up poor in West London, This Boy:
Casting my mind back now, I don't think I ever felt safe on those streets. For while there was a genuine sense of community in our neighbourhood, the threat of violence that bubbled perpetually beneath the surface was a part of our everyday lives. It erupted frequently. Adult men would fight outside the pubs on a Saturday night and gangs of boys, keen to prove how tough they were, would attack if provoked. And it didn't take a lot to provoke them. Sometimes it was enough to make the simple mistake of looking at them. Having said that, sometimes not looking at them could be interpreted as weakness and lead to the same outcome.
Do we really want to let UKIP do our remembering, our memorialising, our history-writing and our teaching for us? No, I don't think that we do, thank you very much.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The white rose and the red

There was little euphoria when the 'no' camp won the Scottish independence referendum. Partly this was because they were campaigning for the status quo, and the world went on going to work and school without the huge party that would undoubtedly have marked a 'yes' win. As that implies, the 'yes' camp had been more lively, more colourful, more hopeful and more fashionable all along, and they'd captured the hearts of many in the twenty- and thirty-something camp who are always more likely to have a big shindig in the first place. Then there was Prime Minister David Cameron's opportunist attempt to tie the promise of further powers for Scotland to 'English votes for English laws', since diluted (as it always had to be) with a sense of the possible - this side of a General Election, that is. That put the mockers on any sense that the new constitutional settlement in Scotland (and the rest of the UK) might meet with universal support and some acclaim. It reclaimed the whole debate for mere partisan advantage, where it should never sit.

For all these reasons, the days since the independence referendum have seen the nationalists continue to make the political running in Scotland. The Scottish National Party's membership has surged upwards, as has the pro-'yes' Scottish Green Party's. One opinion poll (albeit one commissioned by the SNP itself) has shown that party running ahead of Labour in the race for Westminster votes in May. Now that may not translate into many seats, given how Labour has always piled up votes in seats across the West of Scotland and Glasgow; but the SNP will be able to return MPs in ex-Liberal Democrat seats, such is the Lib Dems' toxicity in Scotland. They might aspire to gain between about 12 and 18 seats in May - enough, perhaps, to hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament. There is even talk of a combined 'yes' slate in May, which will further boost the numbers of parties standing on a 'yes' platform, and against the three 'Westminster' parties. All in all, it's been a good defeat for the separatists, who can say that they might be back for another referendum sooner than anyone thinks. If they can win more than 20 seats in May, or secure a vote to stay in the EU while the UK as a whole comes out, they're going to have a stronger case for a referendum rerun than anyone thought possible straight after the 18 September plebiscite.

But in truth all of this comes out of the fact that the 'yes' camp can remain ideologically and emotionally pure from a defeat that they are determined to say was close (it wasn't) and heroic (no, again). The truth is that the 'yes' camp didn't have to deliver on their promises of a free unicorn for every Scot, and that they didn't have to make the messy beaucratic choices and partisan compromises that any really existing politics involves. So the 'no' camp are having to struggle with what 'Home Rule for Scotland' will look like. Big deal. The alternative set of hard choices (as Tony Blair always used to call them) would have been much, much worse.

Consider this counterfactual, or alternative timeline. Now the use of this technique is controversial among historians, for it's a departure into an imaginary and speculative world of what didn't happen. But bear with us. We make counterfactual asserttions all the time. We say 'this happened because of this', implicitly arguing that 'it didn't happen because of this'. That means that we're always and necessarily reasoning counterfactually - i.e. imagining different worlds where we changed the variables.

Anyway. It's 19 September. There's been a very narrow 'yes' vote. A banking run begins. The Bank of England supports the Scottish banks, but most of them announce that they are leaving for England, taking their precious balance of payments-supporting revenue (though not most of their staff) with them. Scotland is left without a credible plan for a currency union (which is ruled out immediately by London) and has to issue an unwanted, unpopular new currency from independence in 2017 or 2018. This rapidly drops in value by 20% or 30% against the pound. Interest rates rise. Public spending has to be cut. Scotland is applying to join the European Union, and has to agree (with some relief) to join the Euro. Interest rates can come down on its entry in 2022 or 2023, but only at the cost of more public spending cuts to bring her finances in line with the European Central Bank's rules. Better Together's horsetrading about new powers for the Edinburgh Parliament? I think I'd take these any day over potentially losing my home and watching the Scottish NHS be cut to the bone.

And there's more: remember that this counterfactual will apply with even more power in the future. As Scotland's population ages, and its oil wealth runs down, the economic case for independence will get ever weaker, even as the 'yes' camp's continuing grass-roots organisation might cause it to grow and grow emotionally. Then the nationalists really will be in a bind, wanting to leave the UK, but knowing that Scots will almost certainly be much, much poorer for it.

Forget, for a moment, the wilder shores of conspiracy theorists who will always believe that the vote was rigged (though there are an awful lot of them, and far more for comfort). More honest 'yes' campaigners know that they just didn't have the support or campaigning muscle that noisy demonstrations in Glasgow made it look as if they had. SNP canvassing always looked like pulling them up some way short of their aim. They did nothing to win over 'Middle Scotland', which differs little from 'Middle England'. Focusing on expelling Trident, promising to raise benefits (how, exactly?) and trying to hold onto a currency it was clear they never could were all massive, massive strategic errors that the 'yes' camp's myth-making also wants to efface from history. Here's a tip: don't let them. There might be a post-'no' hangover, but it's much, much less of a headache than what would have happened had 'yes' triumphed.

In any case, this is the end of the argument for now. Hugh MacDiarmid's white rose of Scotland, so small, so sweet and so piercing, will continue to grow as one with its red-painted cousin. It will not just sit alongside or partner the red rose of England, but go on being historically, emotionally, familiarly and above all perhaps strangely entangled with its like and unlike twin. They are an unlikely pair, rambling, intertwined, complementary - and so, so odd. But their slow, uncertain progress towards whatever sun and storm awaits them continues. We on the 'no' side, at least, are grateful.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Labour's mistake: thinking of the voters like lego

We left you last week with a question: could the Conservatives get away with a totally uncosted load of tax cutting bribes? And the answer, now as it has ever been, is this: yes, they probably can.

Regular readers will know that Public Policy and the Past has always thought Labour's poll numbers were extremely underwhelming. Even when they've led in the polls, they've never been able to pull away. Now they're actually behind the Conservatives with some pollsters - though, we should note, not with others. The mix of a recovering economy and their lead over Labour on questions of Prime Ministerial leadership seems decisive - at least insofar as being returned as the largest party after the May General Election. Could the Conservatives even gain an overall majority? Well, that's probably beyond them, though they have an outside shot at making it to the 323 or so seats they need for a working majority.

To understand what has happened, and why things have changed so quickly after Labour seemed to be crawling ahead just a few short weeks ago, we have to look deeply into the way the present Labour leadership sees the world.

The hope of Labour's leader, Ed Miliband (above), as well as the analysis of his advisers, has always been that left-leaning Liberal Democrat defectors who had voted for Nick Clegg's party in 2010 would come over to them en masse. Disgusted at coalition cuts and austerity, as well as at Liberal Democrat pledge-shredding on issues such as university tuition fees, they'd vote Labour whatever happened. Large numbers of Liberal Democrat switchers to Labour, of around a third of the smaller party's 2010 voter base, have always seemed to bear that out. Close observers of opinion polls have termed this Labour's 'firewall', boosting Labour's vote well into the mid- or even high-30s and ensuring that the Conservatives could never pull away enough to wrest decisive control of any contest. According to this way of counting the world, seats such as Lancaster, Broxtowe and Warwickshire North would all fall to Labour as Liberal Democrat deserters flocked to their banner. They didn't need many Conservative switchers. They had the soft left that the Liberal Democrats had captured over Iraq and the economics of 'New Labour'. They could move slightly to the left.

Now this theory was simple. It was elegant. It was backed up by hard, cold numbers. It seemed to make sense. It stuck.

Until now, that is.

Now those numbers of Liberal Democrat to Labour 'switchers' are on some reckonings only in their teens, and they're falling towards the number of Liberal Democrats who are actually thinking of voting Conservative, partly because they'd like a few thousand quid extra in their back pockets, thank you very much.

But what is the deeper reason behind this mismatch between perception and reality? It's down to the fact that the electorate is made up of solid blocs that one can define ideologically is wrong. And the whole thing's a bit patronising, to be honest. Voters don't see themselves spread out along a left-right spectrum, and they certainly don't see themselves 'moving' their allegiance from one party to another, like platoons of foot soldiers. There is no such thing as settled lego-style bricks of voters who are loyal to their 'home', whether new or or long-standing. Citizens are 'churning' around all the time - from Liberal Demoract to Labour, sure, but also from Liberal Democrat to Conservative, from non-voting to Conservative, and back and forth between the Conservatives and the United Kingdom Independence Party, as well as from Labour to Ukip. Failing to understand that 'churn', and what it tells us about a fundamentally unstable and volatile electorate that might change its mind (and back again) at any time, is one of Labour's biggest conceptual errors of this Parliament.

Labour's Liberal Democrat 'firewall' might still hold - it looks likely to do so in the North of England, for instance, where the toxicity of Clegg and Co. seems likely (for instance) to hand Labour Thursday's Heywood and Middleton by-election on a plate. But elsewhere? It seems much more questionable. And there will go the whole election - for Labour, the victim of structural and schematic thinking in an age of the individual.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

David Cameron's astonishing over-confidence

David Cameron's conference speech to the Conservatives gathered in Birmingham (above) was very effective - politically. By turns stern, emotional, electioneering and aggressive, it was a great deal better than Labour leader Ed Miliband's limp effort of a week ago. It offered some hope amidst the dim greyness of constant pay freezes and falling wages. The promise of big tax cuts seems, in particular, to have shored up the Prime Minister's relatively weak electoral and partisan position - for now.

But read in between the lines, and the numbers just don't add up. It's an example of post-modern or 'hyper-real' economics, in which you 'represent' the economy as a series of views, angles and links rather than thinking of it as a really whole thing or functioning system. Interesting theoretically - not so comforting when it's your state currency and budget that's being messed about with. Now it's our job here to look at the economics of what voters are being sold. We had to conclude just last month that the Scottish Government's financial plans for Scottish independence were pitifully inadequate. Now we're going to have to pass the same judgement on Conservative plans, for two reasons: the distributional effect of the proposed changes, and their implications for economic policy as a whole.

Two changes are promised. The first, to raise the threshold for Britain's higher 40% rate of Income Tax, and the second, to raise the lower threshold at which workers pay Income Tax at all. What this actually means is that better-off taxpayers will get a great big old bribe if there is a majority Conservative government. Consider two cases. Middle manager Mrs A earns £50,000. She'll benefit from paying 20% less of her income to the taxman on her earnings between about £42,000 and the actual level of her salary. So she'll be £1,600 better off a year - or 3.2% richer. Now pensioner Mrs B earns £13,000 when you look at her combined state and private pension - not a king's ransom, but enough (with no mortgage) to be able to live with a tiny bit of comfort. She won't have to pay 20% tax on her income between about £10,500 and £12,500 - so she'll be £400 better off, or about 3.1% richer. Except that Mrs A will also gain that extra £400 from the raising of the initial threshold, so her savings add up to £2,000 a year - four per cent of her income. So the better off will do better. Those on the lowest incomes, perhaps labouring part-time in Britain's big old supermarket economy? They'll get very little, if anything, since the threshold rises of 2010-15 have already pushed them out of the personal tax system, and there was nothing said in Birmingham about raising the National Insurance threshold that might still help them. The Liberal Democrats have so far made sure during this coalition government that the upper bands have not moved up, in order to stop the better off gaining much from the movement of the lowest band. That'll stop now, if there is indeed a Conservative overall majority, and to be honest it's quite an inducement to basically be offered £2,000 in cash if you are lucky enough to earn £50,000 (which the great majority of Britons do not). Do you want two grand, for free? Of course you do.

But the whole thing - and the Chancellor's prior pledge to abolish Inheritance Tax on pensions, which also disproportionately advantages the richest citizens - is completely and utterly uncosted in terms of the savings needed to deliver these plans. The two pledges would cost £7.2bn over a whole Parliament - though much more if they were to come in quicker than 2020. There's nothing to balance this for the Exchequer at all. We've had £3bn in pledges of welfare 'reform', mainly in cuts to tax credits which will make it even harder for those on the edge of the labour market to move off benefits and into work. But George Osborne, as Chancellor, has also said that he wants to clear the deficit before the end of the next Parliament - announcing £25bn in completely vague and back-of-an-envelope cuts in a Conservative Govenrment's first two years. So departments will have to find at least £32.2bn in the first few years of the next Parliament, and probably a lot more (£40bn? £50bn?) if the pathetically slow progress of debt reduction is really to gain a hold. While protecting schools and National Health Service budget, so deliberately evoked by Mr Cameron yesterday.

Newsflash: it ain't going to happen. It's the stuff of economic science fiction. Just as this Parliament's deficit-reduction strategy was torn up in 2012-13, so this A-Level economics guff will be conveniently forgotten about. It's just like Kenneth Clarke's promises in 1996, before another election the Conservatives feared that they would lose - written in invisible ink, ready to disappear the day after the contest. Present Ministers cannot possibly think that they are going to stick to this plan to cut 8% or 9% more than they are already, since the spending planned to come into effect during 2015-18 are nearly as big as those executed in this Parliament. It would mean the evisceration, and really in some areas just outright cancellation, of government as we know it outside of compulsory education and acute health. Police? Universities? Local authority elderly care? Child protection? Defence? On this showing, they'll take a kicking that'll make 2010-15 look like the good years.

Now such unrealistic promises might well work electorally. Tax-cuts-with-added-hangover worked for the Conservatives in the General Elections of 1955, 1959, 1987 and 1992. But don't let anyone tell you, ever again, that our electoral politics are now a choice between deficit cutters and spenders. Because they're not. Now they're a choice between public sector spending and signing big fat cheques for the better off. It's an astonishing turnaround for a party that promised better stewardship of the public finances, and now seems to have abandoned even the last pretence of sticking to their economic plan. While all the time saying that they have and they are.

Can they get away with it? Only time will tell.