Sunday, 20 December 2015

That's it for 2015!

It's been a long, tiring, draining, surprising and - yes - emotional 2015. Now it's nearly over, we thought we'd pick out three themes that have defined 2015 for us, and which might allow us to sum up everything that we've said over the last year. Let's pick them out from the three areas we've covered the most - Western politics (and specifically European politics) overall, the travails of the UK Labour Party, and the various politically self-interested bodge jobs that the present Conservative administration in London likes to call 'policy'.

The centre is just about holding - for now. Everywhere you look, Europe's political system is being bent and buckled by the challenges of a new and radical populism. At the time of writing, it looks likely like the Left-wing Podemos grouping, and to a lesser extent the more centrist and reformist Citizens' Party, are trampling down the decades-long dominance of the two main parties in Spain. But one of the main two parties - the People's Party, or the Socialists - will still head up the Government in Madrid, posing perhaps insurmountable problems for any junior coalition partner that has to give up the purity of saying for the dirty business of actually doing. Europe's elites are just - just - managing to keep the show on the road. The French National Front may well have attained its highest-ever share of the vote in this year's French regional polls, but the party was stopped in its tracks by more centrist voters of both Left- and Right-wing variants, who objected to the idea of the FN actually running their lives and services. The Danish People's Party may well have come second in Denmark, a country that gives every indication of veering Rightwards very quickly, but more moderate conservatives are still in control. The United Kingdom Independence Party might have got over twelve per cent of the vote in Britain's General Election, but they managed to gain (or hold) on one actual Parliamentary seat. That's where we are now. But can Europe's politicians hold back the insurgencies of Left and Right? Can they get a little bit more economic growth going, push youth unemployment down, get a handle on immigration and the morbid psycho-social fears that seem to grip many electorates? Maybe they can. But time now seems short. The system is being bent, warped and tested. This part of the story is not finished yet.

Britain's Labour Party is in deep, deep trouble. Labour entered this year thinking that it might soon seize power. It leaves 2015 knowing, deep down in everyone's hearts, that it is further from power now than at any time since 1983 - and perhaps even since 1935. It is becoming clearer with each passing day that Labour's new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, probably will last through most of this Parliament, and may well contest the next General Election - meaning that it is likely to be as one-sided as you can possibly imagine. It is very likely that Labour will be not just beaten, but humiliated. And why? Because his enemies within Labour have run out of ideas. Yes, it's fine - and indeed necessary - to talk about 'electability'. But you have to have something else - some slate of ideas, a charismatic leader, some exciting philosophy or concepts. 'New' Labour became exhausted in office (following some of the most far-reaching and Left-wing achievements ever piloted through the House of Commons), and then tainted by the disasters of the Iraq War and its aftermath. Those who like to see themselves as inhabiting or fighting from the 'radical centre' of British politics have never recovered. Every time there is a fight between Mr Corbyn and his MPs, Mr Corbyn will win - because all the new members he has attracted (and all of those more long-standing members who have left) mean that Labour's grassroots are now utterly convinced by his Leftwards tilt. That means almost certain disaster at the ballot box, even if Labour's ratings have not quite collapsed off a cliff just yet. It is rare indeed for any Opposition to be so far behind at this stage in a Parliament; it is even rarer for a new political leader to have no opinion poll bounce whatsoever to talk of (indeed, rather the opposite has been the case for Mr Corbyn). The electorate now need a telescope to see Labour at all, for all the thought they give what used to be a national party that aimed to form a government. It no longer does, and probably will not for some years to come.

British public policy is in some ways even worse. Labour's dire problems mean one thing is very clear: there is now no credible Opposition. This will make the governance of the United Kingdom even worse, but it won't be the main reason why it's so bad. The key explanation for poor policy-making, in those areas where it's poor, is that Ministers are not always or primarily interested in solutions that work. That's a bonus and an aim, of course, but our governors are also interested in destroying the alternatives to continuous Conservative administration. Indeed, it is gradually becoming clear that this may have been the point of 'the cuts' in the first place: to drive Labour's ideological core and supporters so wild with anger and frustration that they retreated into the rageful (but somehow familiar and comforting) white-hot core of their own moral indignation. All the easier, then, to cancel many (though not all) of the cuts and just say 'well, they've done their work now, Labour is basically a laughing stock, so let's lessen the pain'. Cynical - but effective if you understand that some Conservative Ministers are basically nihilists engaged in a long and close-quarters destruction of their enemies. Why else have the Conservatives cut the Short Money that Opposition parties rely on? Brought in Individual Electoral Registration for the new boundaries that will help them anyway? Inaugurated a 'Gagging Bill' to silence charities, and trade union 'reform' that'll cut Labour's funding? For one reason and one reason alone: to make sure that our new-old rulers stay exactly where they are. Labour's done everything it can to help them, of course, but that's their own fault. It's clear to see, meanwhile, exactly those groups who will suffer: everyone who needs social housing, while the Conservatives subvert the Housing Association movement in the name of 'right to buy' schemes that will make these small battalions of laudable charity even less viable; everyone who is going without food because of the Bedroom Tax; everyone who is being cruelly and shabbily sanctioned by benefits officials who have to look over their shoulders all the time; everyone who's young and would like a bit of a chance to educate themselves, rather than a load of broken promises about student loans' interest rates and a definition of 'teaching quality' that is only harmful and painful in its lack of range and ambition. They're all going to get hammered for years to come. That can't be averted now. Sorry, but them's the facts.

Well, before we get too bleak, that's it for now. We'll be back around or about Monday 11 January. On the agenda then? Quite possibly a referendum on the UK's continued membership of the European Union - potentially an epochal struggle which will define what it means to be British for decades to come. An American Presidential election which will almost certainly pit Hillary Clinton against some unfortunate picked from the increasingly-strident, shrill and uncompromising Republican fold. And Mega Thursday, as not too many people are calling it (yet)  - that first Thursday in May date with the electors of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, English local councils, the London Assembly and Mayoralty, Bristol's Mayoralty and Police Commissioners in England and Wales. After that, we'll have a lot more data about the likely popularity (or unpopularity) of Jeremy Corbyn's new-look Labour Party, and the potential lower and upper bands of its performance in the General Election of 2020. Remember: no Opposition has ever come from behind in any of these local and devolved contests and then won a General Election.

Whatever the results, we'll be there - using data, statistics, reason, history and above all transparent, open, falsifiable arguments to try to divine what's really going on. We hope you'll join us.

Until then - Happy Holidays!

Sunday, 13 December 2015

The UK is becoming a series of one-party states

As we approach the end of 2015, it's time to look back and take stock of what this year's British politics might mean in the longer term. You don't look to a historian's site on public policy for much else, do you? But we're afraid, naturally and as ever, that we can offer you little Christmas cheer - for Britain's politics look a lot more sterile, and a great deal less fluid, than they did at the beginning of the year. We are probably in for a long old haul, now, of the Conservatives winning in England (and therefore at Westminster); of the Scottish National Party (SNP) governing in Edinburgh; and of Labour administrations ruling over Wales. Change on any of those fronts appears a long, long way off. Better just to knuckle down and get on with whatever else you're doing, and wait perhaps for the Parliament of 2020-25; or to put your energies into the non-electoral politics - of the environment, devolution, Europe or whatever - that might provide some movement in the years to come.

Why? Because the forces that oppose those outcomes are still weak, and are almost certainly getting weaker. We've long noted that Britain is becoming more and more politically divided, and that whole regions have almost no Labour (or, in fewer cases, Conservative) Members of Parliament at all. Look at the whole of South-West England (above, from the great website UK-Elect), and you'll see just four Labour holdouts against the blue tide - three of them in Bristol, and one in Exeter. Everywhere else, the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote (and the failure of the United Kingdom Independence Party challenge) has left Conservative MPs sitting on some really, really hefty majorities. It's not often realised, though, on just what a scale this winnowing out has occurred. Remember the Tony Blair Labour landslide of 1997? Well, that involved a swing of about ten per cent from the Conservatives to Labour. If that happened again - even a political earthquake on the same Richter scale as New Labour - and Labour still got nowhere in Scotland, they would take 92 Conservative seats and the Labour benches would add up to 324. But that would give them a working majority of just three. So instead of the Blair landslide majority of 177, they'd be on a knife edge and having to turn to the Liberal Democrats and Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party for help all the time.

That's the scale of Labour's challenge - the size of which far too few people in the party realise, even now, and which will only get worse after boundary reforms conducted on an Individual Voter Registration list. Right now, we reckon that Labour may not win a whole lot more than 130 or 140 seats in England on the 'reformed' boundaries, if they go on as they are. They just seem to have no idea what might be about to hit them.

And take Scotland and Wales. There is absolutely no sign whatsoever that Labour is getting anywhere at all in terms of next May's Scottish Parliamentary election, and there is some speculation (still overheated, in our view) that they may even come third, behind the Conservatives. In Wales, too, Labour may be slipping back on the last Welsh elections results in 2011. Indeed, the latest projections based on the polls would lead us to suspect that Labour will lose many of its representatives in the Scottish Parliament - perhaps all of their constituency members. That'll leave the present Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh even more well-entrenched than ever, commanding an even more impregnable majority. There is unlikely to be any change in Cardiff Bay, either, even if Labour dives down even to 23 or 24 Members of the Assembly (still, it seems, very unlikely). That's because there is very, very little prospect at all of a deal between Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalists, the Conservatives and UKIP to oust Labour (and there might be only one Liberal Democrat left sitting in Cardiff Bay, or even none at all).

Wherever you care to look, the idea of a change of government across Britain is looking more and more remote. Conservative, SNP and (in Wales) Labour governments may be with us for a long time to come.

Now we know that things can change quite quickly. Get a young, good-looking, charismatic leader with a nationally appealing message, and there's no end to what you can do. Ask Justin Trudeau in Canada. These things aren't set in stone. And who could possibly have said, at the opening of the year, that there would be such an enormous SNP landslide in May's General Election? That there would be a Conservative overall majority at Westminster? That Jeremy Corbyn would be elected Leader of the Labour Party? Not us. If pushed to it, we would have said that the SNP would return maybe between thirty and forty of Scotland's MPs, not almost all of them; that the Conservatives would be able to go on governing in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; and that (most probably) a Soft Left figure such as Andy Burnham would be elected to lead Labour were they to be rejected at the ballot box. None of that happened. We were nearer than most, but still not right at the mark. We live in a time of unprecedented political turbulence - facing the rise of populism, the continuing long-term decline of old political loyalties and a febrile atmosphere of social media shouting-as-comment that undermines any and all alternatives in a welter of cynicism and contestation.

Even so, the scale of Labour's likely defeat in England next time (at least, after Oldham West, in all the key marginals that actually decides who governs), the scale and scope of Scottish National dominance in Scotland, bestriding the entire intellectual and moral landscape as they do, and the depth of the political challenges facing Labour's opponents in Wales, mean that we would still advise you not to look for any big upheavals any time soon.

That's bad for pluralism, bad for anyone who wants to see much change in Britain over the next ten to twenty years, but most of all (and worst of all) that's bad for good governance itself - which requires a dynamic, thriving and above all plausible alternative government-in-waiting to be on hand at all times, in case the people decide to throw their governors out. Right now, there's absolutely no sign of that in England, Scotland or Wales. All the peoples of Great Britain are the poorer for it. Think that blunders like the tax credits debacle, the Forth Bridge balls-up and the continuing scandal that is Universal Credit would happen if there was a real game on? Well, they might: but they would occur less often, and probably be less disastrous.

The ultimate irony? It may only be in Northern Ireland, forced by the logic of the peace process and the divisions of the past into compulsory power-sharing, where pluralist politics may still survive - in a land where the Ulster Unionist Party once ruled, pretty much without contest, for decade after decade. That example tells us, once more, that all this will pass. Soon, in historical terms, the warm waters of political change will melt the ice once more. History will flow again. But at the moment - and for some years to come - the efficacy and even to some extent the legitimacy of Britain's electoral party politics may now be in deep trouble, because there's absolutely no alternative to the present dispensation on any horizon at all. Back in May, we declared that Britain was entering a political ice age: but we thought that the snow and ice would fall only on the forest canopy. But now it is clear that the frost is penetrating the soil and the roots. It is threatening to kill the entire political ecosystem stone dead for years to come.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Oldham West: the reality

Labour's comfortable hold of Oldham West on Thursday was a bit of a surprise to most of the commentariat. Everyone - almost every single person - that had been on the campaign trail thought that the contest would be much tighter than it was. There seemed little risk that Labour would actually lose the seat (except at a few particularly gruesome moments in the campaign): UKIP hadn't carried the Oldham area even at the moment of its greatest success to date, the 2014 European Parliament elections. But many observers did detect a mood of anti-Labour (and especially anti-Jeremy Corbyn) feeling in the area. Enough, perhaps, to cut Labour's majority to a consensus figure of around 1,000-2,000 on a very low turnout. The present writer thought that Labour would hold by 3,000 to 4,000 on a 35% turnout. Reader, we are not perfect. Actually, Labour ended up moving forward a little bit on the May General Election, and ended up with a majority of 11,000 on a 40% turnout (perhaps around 4,500 on the turnout figure we'd imagined). So red faces - or perhaps red rosettes - for the 'experts' again? 

Well, maybe. But that's not a particularly useful way to think of poor observations or forecast misses. In fact, they're great. Because they tell us where we went wrong. They allow us to learn. And to expose our workings, for others to learn. So that we can see more clearly where we've been going wrong elsewhere. If we have.

That's especially so when this contest has been followed by a load of 'reassessments' of Mr Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party, which as regular readers will know this blog thinks of as not only wrong in principle, but also a type of uniquely dangerous electoral anthrax of a type that might damage Labour's standing for a decade or more. Apparently things are a lot better than they looked, all of a sudden. So what's really going on? Are there crumbs of comfort here for Labour, even during its present reign as some sort of absurdist advert for hiring more Public Relations people who might actually know what they are doing?

Well, we think that there are three main lessons to take from most commentators' misreading of this by-election, thereby hopefully adding marginally to the slew of post-mortems. The first point to make is that this is quite close to what we should always have expected given present polling and the evidence that's come in from local by-elections. A small-ish United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to Labour swing, in a safe Labour seat, is entirely unsurprising and normal when the polls have seen Labour basically slip back a little bit since May, while evidence mounts all around that they may be doing a little better in their 'heartland' areas - at the same time as UKIP also seem to be pretty much treading water (note that their vote also went up a touch). This is a confirmation of and a proof about the use of opinion polling, not some sort of wake-up call for forecasters. There's nothing here to cut across the picture we see in the national numbers: that Labour is a long way behind the Conservatives, that they are falling ever-further behind, and that they are now about eight or nine percentage points or so shy of their position relative to their main opponents at the same time in the last Parliament. It's a grim picture if you're on the British Left. If repeated in any linear way, by the way, that decline could see Labour down in the low twenties as a 2020 share of the vote, and returning only about 130 or 140 MPs in a post-boundary reforms 600-seat House of Commons. So there's that.

The second thing Oldham West tells us is that not everyone is obsessed with what goes on at Westminster, and indeed this effect may have become more pronounced after the Iraq War and the expenses scandal undermined faith in politicians. How else do the Scottish National Party and UKIP make hay out of the perceived evils of the 'old' parties in London, that host of 'Westmonster' and 'the establishment'? The wise people of Oldham West seem to have been more than impressed with the young, fluent and patently honest Jim McMahon (above), their local candidate who's been busying himself bringing jobs and regeneration to the town. You know, little things like a payslip and a coffee shop. Normal stuff. Stuff that actually matters to real people. Not Jeremy Corbyn, a faraway political figure many Oldham residents professed never to have heard of anyway. Not Hilary's Benn speech in the Syria debate. Not the endless permutations of Shadow Cabinet procedure. Not the fact that the Parliamentary Labour Party basically can't stand the sight of its own leader. No. Voters have come to despise politicians, and Mr McMahon doesn't look or sound like a robot out of central casting. His activists went out and fought for him with a real passion that he was the right man for the job (as he was), and they had a local story to tell. So Labour won. That's not a Left-wing or a Right-wing point. It's just a fact when Britons are so disillusioned with rulers who seem to know nothing at all about everyday life. 

The third and last lesson - and we cannot stress this enough - is not that Labour and its new leader don't have enormous, perhaps insurmountable, problems in trying to communicate with the wider electorate. Every single other data point that we've seen since the summer says something diametrically opposed to this newly-fashionable wisdom of the past 24 hours - and before you say 'well, the opinion polls are always wrong', that includes loads and loads of local by-elections which, although held on low turnouts themselves, have been pretty clear about what's happening. Labour is in a deep hole, and it seems likely to keep on digging. Where there are a high number of Green votes up for grabs, or where there are lots of liberal metropolitan and urban voters, Labour has and will do quite well - especially in London (on this basis, we think Sadiq Khan should just about be favourite for next year's London Mayoralty elections). But everywhere else, they are going backwards. On Thursday night, unheralded amidst the Oldham West drama, they demonstrated once more that they have lost quite a lot of votes since May in Guildford in Surrey, Meole in Shropshire (on their 2013 return), and Belvoir in Lincolnshire, while moving forward in their rock-solid London fortress of Newham. Have a look through yourselves, if you like: pretty much every Thursday night throws up the same pattern. Labour are going backwards, and General Election prediction sites right now think that they'd lose about 20 seats if there was an election tomorrow.

Think of it like this. Drawing a straight line between our polls now and 2020 paints about as dark a picture as any politician could even bear to look at. As does just about all the other data that's come in. But the path downwards for Labour - that gap between their performance now and in 2015, carried forward to the next election - is probably curved, and not linear: that is to say, as you squeeze the Labour vote more and more, resistance to further falls will become fiercer and fiercer as voters cleave to their traditional 'Labour' identity. So although they might get only 23% if the polls move as they did in the last Parliament, that won't happen. In places such as Oldham, where many people for generations have been Labour rather than voting Labour, many people will stick with the party through thick and thin. In that situation, UKIP's appallingly amateurish and (let's face it) quite nasty politics of identity will not get them as far in Northern England as the Conservatives' more emollient message will get them in the target-rich English Midlands. That's an especially strong finding since it seems that voters shy away from UKIP the more they close in on winning a seat: voters don't like the idea of being represented by people they perceive to be a bunch of extremists. What a surprise. Oldham West has begun to put a floor under our perceptions of Labour's retreat in its northern fastnesses: UKIP are probably not going to take lots of Labour seats in a sudden SNP-style onslaught. They might pick off a few, but that may well now be the limit of their advance. UKIP will harm Labour in Labour-Conservative marginals by peeling away some of Labour's natural support. But 'breaking through' themselves? It seems less likely now. By getting it a bit wrong in Oldham West, that's what we've learned. That's what we can take away. Labour still has life in it, whatever ludicrous trap its leadership next falls into or however much its MPs row - with each other.

But nor was the result particularly encouraging when we look at the annals of by-elections gone by. Let's give you some historical numbers here, since that what we're really for. Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith met the voters for the first time in the Uxbridge and Ipswich by-elections of 1997 and 2001. In Uxbridge, in a seat the Conservatives already held with a large majority, they moved foward quite a lot, by... well, 7.6 per cent actually, an uncannily similar figure to Labour's 7.3 per cent upwards push in Oldham. There was a more-than-respectable 5.1 per cent swing to Mr Hague's party, during Tony Blair's electoral honeymoon, in an area where they must have thought they'd already maxed out their vote. In Ipswich, although the Conservative vote went down, Labour's fell further as the Liberal Democrats' rose, and there was a modest three per cent swing to the Conservatives - slightly larger, in fact, than the swing to Labour on Thursday night in Oldham. You don't need us to tell you the rest of the story: Mr Hague went on to be humiliated in the General Election of 2001, while Mr Duncan Smith was such a poor leader that the Conservatives turned in desperation to Michael Howard to reverse their members' choice. Michael. Howard. These two leaders' first by-election tests had demonstrated nothing at all about the disastrous lurch away from the electorate that their party was indulging in at the time.

Oldham West was such a good result for Labour, though an imperfect omen, because it showed that their machine can still get the vote out, and it took some (though only some) of the sting out of the 'Corbyn is toxic' argument. Note, however, that this was an example of the whole party as it is now constituted hanging together, with Labour's Right and Centre flooding in to help Mr McMahon - a notable ally of theirs, and a likely future Shadow Cabinet Minister or even leader - alongside Leftist types from Mr Corbyn's Momentum 'movement'. Everyone in Labour had something to gain here: the Right and Centre a new banner-bearer, and the Left a chance to take some of the heat off Mr Corbyn. Think that Labour will play nicely like this again, in different circumstances? If you do, you're a kinder person than most politicians, though maybe not most activists.

Let's take you back to Public Policy and the Past in 2011, and our comments on the Barnsley Central by-election. Then, as now, an unconvincing Labour leader met an electorate who seemed less than convinced about his credentials, and then as now UKIP tried to dent Labour's traditional hold on the town. The result was the same: a comfortable Labour hold. But our caution then proved prophetic, building up we hope some sort of capital for what we're saying now:
Labour will hardly be punching the air this morning. In a solid working class northern town, they beat a neo-liberal government cutting services on a low turnout. Excuse me while I stifle a yawn. In fact, the danger for Labour is that they retreat further into the comfort zone that the election of Ed Milliband as their leader perhaps suggested. Everything we know about the polling suggests that Labour's lead is rather small, reactive and soft - that it is made up of people defecting from the Lib Dems, yes, but also from 'don't know' or 'don't usually vote'. Unless Labour's really careful, all that will melt away again if and when the economy recovers... There is absolutely no doubt that the public want the deficit addressed, and that, rightly or wrongly, they think the last government overspent and overborrowed. Labour has to change that perception, or more likely, change the question and the subject. By-elections don't force you to do that. General elections do. So what does Barnsley tell us? Not much.
Replace the word 'Barnsley' with 'Oldham', and 'Ed Miliband' with 'Jeremy Corbyn', and everything we said then still holds pretty well today. Except that Ed Miliband did better than Mr Corbyn in his first few by-elections in charge - an early sign of progress that later turned very, very sour. The words 'Labour lead' are a bit of a period piece, though, and at the moment we're unlikely to see them written down anywhere for quite a while.

Our three takeaways from Oldham West? One: the national polling, when looked at in conjunction with local councils results, might now be giving us a fairly accurate picture of the situation. Two: Labour won here with a really good candidate, and by flooding the constituency with activists from all wings of the party who could get Labour's vote out - something that they are likely to be unable, or unwilling, to do in the nationwide elections of next May. Or in a General Election.

And third? This by-election may take the heat off Mr Corbyn for a while, but in and of itself - and beyond confirming some of our overall numbers - it tells us about the sum total of zero about the great contests to come. Oldham West indicates to us that Labour isn't going to entirely evaporate: their retreat will be fought all the way. The downward curve of the party's steep helter-skelter may become more kindly as its nears its bottom. Labour is fighting a kind of political Battle of El Alamein: a fading empire with enough strength remaining to ward off attacks on its rivals' flanks, but no longer possessing the power to go on the offensive.

We leave you with this thought. Are by-elections good indicators of the national future? Well, if you want to really know, you can ask Prime Ministers Hague, Duncan Smith and Miliband.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

The UK economy: don't think the pain is all over

'With one bound, he was free': doubtless this is the way that George Osborne would like his recent Autumn Statement to be remembered. Taking advantage of some interest rate changes, some inflation rate rejigging and quite a lot of tax rises, the Chancellor (above) was able to say he was completely abolishing the Tax Credit changes that had always seemed so out-of-step with just about everything the Conservatives said about rewarding work. He was able to slow down quite a lot of the austerity that he had always threatened (or promised), and basically make everyone just a little bit less gloomy about the prospects for public services over the next few years. He cancelled any plans to cut police spending. He made sure he protected research spending in real terms for the rest of this Parliament (quite important if you, ahem, work in a university). And so on.

So there were all sorts of headlines along the lines of 'the end of austerity' and the like, as if all the bad times were behind us. No-one should be quite so foolhardy or so quick to accept the Government's line. All Budgets, and all financial packages, have a habit of coming unstuck a little way down the line, as some of the losers begin to speak up alongside the winners. And very few announcements from this most political of Chancellors can be taken exactly on trust.

So it's true that the spending pattern now looks a bit flatter. It looked ridiculous before the General Election, like a hockey stick with a whopping great load of front-loaded cuts at the start of this Parliament, and then some hefty spending increases at the end, when Mr Osborne will want to be pleasing voters rather than poking them in the eye. It looked a little bit more sensible after his post-election summer Budget. Now it looks even better, with basically flat cash spending by the end of the Parliament and only a much shallower dip in the middle.

So far, so good? Job done? Well, not really. For the pain is still going to be very, well, painful. We can't feel too sorry for buy-to-let landlords (who will be subject to higher stamp duty on their property purchases), since there's probably quite a lot of slack in a sector that could do with having some of the energy and heat taken out of it. Though Mr Osborne's repeated tax raids on the top ten per cent of earners are an interesting phenomenon, considering he is a Conservative Chancellor after all, that subject will have to wait for another day. Nor should raising an Apprenticeship Levy (basically another tax on companies) be necessarily unwelcome, since there's no reason why all those costs should necessarily rest with the Exchequer.

The real problem hits us once we look at what's still got to happen for Mr Osborne's targets to be met. He's left himself very little wriggle room, because he's basically banked much of the extra cash that the Office for Budget Responsibility told him he had left over. Understandable, though he should never have got himself into the stupid bind of cutting Tax Credits anyway - a deeply self-destructive penalty for Britons trying to move off welfare into work, as this administration is always hectoring people to do.

Still, some of the assumptions made about spending in the Autumn Statement look frankly incredible. Is the National Health Service really going to cope while having its funding fall every single year (as a share of the national economy), when on that measure it has only ever known increases? Can it really meet the so-called 'efficiency savings' that Mr Osborne has ordered, when it's been coming up with those for over half a decade already? We doubt it. Will people in the low- to middle-income brackets be able to buy anywhere to live when 'social housing' has basically been shrunk to the idea of subsiding expensive housing, and by only a very little? Probably not. Should students' loan interest rates really have been changed after they had entered into what looks very much like a contract with Her Majesty's Government? Any sensible economist or public policy analyst should be opposed to such post hoc changes as well, for they destabilise and undermine trust in the direction of any and all such policies that the British Government may announce in future.

And when we come to those low-paid workers that Mr Osborne says he is so keen to help out, don't think that the pain is over for them either. Tax credits cuts have been cancelled, but Universal Credit changes will cause nearly as much hardship - to similar groups of people - when they come into effect later in the Parliament. Now, the effect will be mitigated by the fact that wages will have risen by then, and that the Government's so-called National Living Wage will be due; and only new, rather than existing, claimants, will be hit. And no-one believes that Universal Credit will ever really work as Whitehall says it will, barring a few showoff examples. Mr Osborne can also afford to wait and see how the economy goes before turning his attention to Universal Credit, when he will probably reduce or even cancel the whole idea of his £12bn 'welfare savings'. Even so, the distributional changes by the end of this Parliament are not all that different to what they looked like before the Chancellor stood up and made his Autumn Statement - yet another smoke and mirrors act that should have seen him humiliated, were the official Opposition Labour Party anything other than a joke at the moment. An Opposition that's still to get its act together on a proper long-form press release on the Statement, by the way.

In any case, you'll have seen lots of headlines implying that we should all run out and dance in the streets. That economic summer is round the corner. Well, no. The cuts now look rather more like those that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls contemplated (they still go rather deeper). But if you're a student running up large debts, if you need the NHS, and still more if you rely on local government services that will will now have to shrink very rapidly (partly because the Government can turn the blame on them when people complain), things are still going to be very, very, very grim.

The depth of our economic winter is relaxing its grip - a little. Spring is still some way off.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Syria: no easy answers

The world is full of armchair generals and rent-a-quotes, and this is never more clearly proved than in debates over peace and war. Just do this easy thing, they say; that'll put things to rights. Press this big red button. Or, alternatively: don't do anything. That's the way - when did intervening in foreign countries ever solve anything? Bomb. Don't bomb. Blow stuff up. Talk. Oh yes, it's all so simple, isn't it? Well, excuse us if we don't think that a load of journalists and politicians make up much of a Royal United Services Institute seminar, but they don't. Most of them don't know what they're talking about, won't own up to their lack of expertise, and just use the whole thing as a way to settle partisan scores or shout out about a load of stuff you knew they thought anyway.

They're all fakes. No-one's sure what will work in Syria, and if anyone tells you that they are, you should put your fingers in your ears and shout 'la, la, la' rather than listening to them.

Regular readers will know that this blog was rather sceptical about the case for bombing Syria when this question last came up (in a very different context) during August 2013. Well, we said: what's the case for it? Can we get a timeframe, a set of objectives, a sense of the political track that will be pursued alongside the bombs, an impression of the type of targets we're going to strike out at? Only then can any responsible legislature make such a decision. We were prepared to look at the case, and often since then have often stopped to think: 'did we make a horrible mistake? Should the UK have intervened against President Assad two years ago, before some of these horrors unfolded?' We'll never know for sure, but to be perfectly honest, a few cruise missiles and bombs at that point might not have made much difference, and might have caused the Syrian state to collapse even more completely than it did later on. Look at the fate of post-intervention Libya, for instance. But maybe we're wrong. Maybe sending a political signal then would have restrained the Assad regime, forced it to the negotiating table, reduced the scale and scope of the chaos that has allowed ISIS to grow and thrive. Who knows?

And it's that sense of indeterminacy, of we're-not-sure, that should be your marker in the coming days. MPs who sit down and listen to the case in the House of Commons, without histrionics and shouting, are your friends here. Not the certain bombers and the certain refusers. The thinkers. The doubters. The listeners. They're earning their keep as your representatives.

Because there are good points to be made on both sides of the debate. There is absolutely no doubt that the case for intervention has strengthened since 2013, that it is still strengthening, and that our alliances and treaties - agreements that have kept us (mostly) safe since 1945 - may require military action. The new United Nations Security Council Resolution on Syria calls for states to act together to 'eradicate' the safe havens that Syria represents for ISIS. If France invokes Article Five of the NATO Treaty, there seems little doubt but that the UK would be legally required to go to her aid. And the threat that has emerged is nothing like that presented by jihadi fighters in the past. Groups such as al-Qaeda lived in something resembling the modern world. They had political demands. They had objectives. They wanted things. ISIS has made more than clear, over and over again, that they want nothing but a millennial round of destruction that brings the world down on their own heads, all the better to meet their eschatological ends. They're probably about to get their wish.

Nor is it the case, despite the disgusting and disgraceful reaction of the increasingly unacceptable, beyond-the-pale Stop the War campaign, that something called 'the West' has 'brought retribution on itself'. Such vile victim-blaming and falsehood is totally ahistorical, and it ignores the chronology, the geography and the geopolitical realities. ISIS isn't obsessed with hitting NATO and the US: that's a sideshow. They're focused - for now - on killing everyone else. Yazidis. Secularists. Christians. Socialists. Druze. They're not motivated by the Iraq War. No-one attacked most of them from the skies before they revved up their murderous campaign. Attacks like Paris (above) are a by-product of their suicidal war on the world, and thinking anything else is just a load of self-hating and Western-centric self-obsession. No. We're looking at a much wider game here. Everyone has played a role in bringing Syria to its knees, allowing what is basically an obsessive death cult to flourish there. The Saudi money that helped to build up their extremist ideology. The Iranian militias that have helped to devastate the country. The Russian bombs that have followed. The US and British states' error in first invading Iraq, and then allowing it to fall apart on their watch - creating yet another part of the power vacuum into which ISIS have inserted themselves.

All that said, there's a respectable case to be made for holding one's hand. No-one expects to find backing for Jeremy Corbyn's increasingly doomed and embarrassing leadership of the Labour Party here. It's pretty much all over now, and all that remains is to clear up the wreckage. But he does have a few good points to make on this one (while twisting and turning all the while to avoid the awful moment of reckoning when he has to make up his mind on whether to offer Labour MPs a free vote or not). Although Western intervention hasn't 'caused' atrocities like Paris, it doesn't seem to have done all that much to deter them, either. Political strategies are just as vital as military ones, as Tony Blair's ex-Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, has just pointed out (though of course this isn't an 'either'/ 'or' question). And as we said back in 2013, lobbing a few more bombs into an unstable mix of civil war, outsider opportunism and the vastly complex chess board of the Middle East might well not do much for anyone. Without a multi-dimensional diplomatic effort to try engagement on some level with Iran and Russia - and ground forces on which we can rely - just bombing some Syrian oil refineries and ISIS supply routes runs the risk of just 'doing something' for doing something's sake.

The truth is this, however much no-one wants to hear it: there are no easy roads before us in Syria, or anywhere else in the region for that matter.

In a political world more and more defined by 140 characters, full of shouting, clamour and rage, the Syria vote is an opportunity to meet together as a country and plot our course: to listen. Truly listen.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The new nationalisation of Britain

'Neo-liberalism' is a vastly overused term these days. In the hands of experts such as David Harvey, Mike Davis and Will Davies, it means something sophisticated: a combination of economic, cultural and social analysis that starts to help us make sense of our ever-shifting, restless, boundless, urgent, insurgent world. Far too often, it's just a set of boo words, to denote the 'free market', the 'globalised economy', the 'rise of inequality' or some other phenomenon that the writer happens not to like (and probably doesn't exist anyway, at least in the simplistic forms this sort of stuff appears). So in popular journalism and commentary? Totally useless, and worthy of ignoring every and each type it appears.

But it's still a useful term when used sensitively, applied to the strange hybrid forms of governance to which we are now subject. What it denotes in our political now is a strange type of not-quite-here and not-quite there administration, not quite public, not really private, and complicated beyond measure. Take a look at the railways. Does anyone really know who's responsible for everything? Well, no - not really, a cost and a burden on the passenger and taxpayer alike.

And that question of administration is a clue to what we see as one of neo-liberalism's neglected intellectual and practical roots. For it's a question of administration. If you want to impose all those things that Ministers since the 1980s have called 'markets', you need controls: powers to enforce those structures and concepts that are supposed to be natural, accepted, integral to what it is to be a citizen and a person - but, of course, are actually immediate, contemporary, shifting, historical. But those powers, collected at the centre, often just collapse in on themselves - too variegated, complex and burdensome to be executed by just a single Ministry, however full of clever civil servants it may be. Then Whitehall and Westminster start to clutch at all or any mechanisms that they can to get a hold on what is happening, let alone what could be made to happen. They're multi-layered, variegated, splattered in all directions, often on an ad hoc basis - and usually fail to wrest back control at the centre, rather just blurring the whole situation until it looks like a grey dog in a rainy fog. It's for this reason that political scientists have increasingly spoken of the 'hollow crown' of the Premiership and Cabinet, with all the formal power that comes with the pomp and ceremony of the British state - but with little of its past reach, bite and force, even within the UK's own borders.

Andrew Lansley's Health and Social Care Act, which fundamentally recast the National Health Service during the last Parliament, is a good case in point. It was supposed to explode the NHS into many Commissioning Groups and 'providers', whether private or public; after a messy and long-winded series of compromises, it actually ended up spinning a spiders' web of regulators, agencies, commissioners, authorities and mechanisms that it is almost incomprehensible even to those who are supposed to understand it. Ministers' recent swaggering behaviour towards Housing Associations, forcing them into a right to buy 'deal' that will basically nationalise them while making it harder for and harder for such associations to break even and build more houses, is another series of egregious errors unfolding in slow motion.

Universities are another good example of what we mean, and of course we here at Public Policy and the Past have close experience here. Ministers have long wanted to impose a hierarchical series of prices on the sector, all the better to signal to parents what is 'best' and most 'admirable' in British Higher Education. They were thwarted in the last Parliament, when almost all universities decided to charge the £9,000 maximum that was supposed to be available to them in 'exceptional' circumstances. So now they're back for a second bite at the cherry, setting up an absurdist and to be honest rather laughable mechanism called the Teaching Excellence Framework. This involves setting up a whole load of metrics, peer reviews and indicators to create four levels of fees - not the last of the increased control-in-depth on which the Government will insist for, well, less and less (and less) money.

It's the process which Andrew Marr tried to sum up, all those years ago back in the 1990s, with his book Ruling Britannia: the apparent retreat of the state, matched only by the rolling forward of every type of unaccountable, uncontrollable quango, 'mission group', 'policy tsar', think tank, 'task force' and third sector contractor (Kids' Company is a good example) that you care to count. The Greater London Council was abolished by the Thatcher Government in the 1980s, since it displayed rather too much independence of mind for the Conservatives; it was replaced by a series of borough-by-borough quangos that did the same work, without any of the same tiresome democratic representation. Nationalised industries were sold off, but had to be controlled by new regulators that had more power than the Ministers whose work they had supposedly replaced (since Ministers had often been forced to accept what the boards of publicly-owned corporations had told them). The Scottish and Welsh Offices were enormously powerful in those two countries, ruled even at a time of increased personal 'liberty' by Secretaries of States who had powers akin to Irish Lord Lieutenants in the nineteenth century. And so on.

That's why public services look, structurally at least, something like the production systems of the Perestroika-era Soviet Union: full of 'choice' that isn't really choice, and consumerism within the limits of what government will allow; but also marked by a really chaotic sense that no-one is really in command of the situation. It's the worst of both worlds, and it can't last. One day the NHS deficits that we see piling up will burst their bounds. More than just one or two hospitals might well go into financial administration. One day a really big university will go belly-up, in a welter of recrimination and finger-pointing (not least among its staff). One day a local authority will collapse under the weight of financial stringency on the one hand, and the massive and growing burdens of social care in a rapidly ageing society on the other.

The reason? Something that post-war history and politics could never have prepared us for. Something paradoxical, that's there because of a string of ideological u-turns and z-turns, a series of unplanned and unexpected contradictions, that occurred when central government's plans to construct 'markets' smashed into reality as experienced and governed on the ground, and became quasi-prices, semi-controls and bounded 'choices'. This does seem very strange, though not perhaps new in a world where the state is always compromised and compromising: in which the Conservative Party, supposedly the party of the organic constitution, the smaller state, the market, the businessman and the cautious stewardship of public administration, has engaged on a binge feat of controls, directions, power-grabs and diktats that would make a commissar weep. And all for what? To bring local government to heel, to push the envelope on what is public and what is private, to roll forward the frontiers of the state, and to complicate every line of responsibility of management until it looks like a tin of spaghetti.

Neo-liberalism: the service of those collapsing internal contradictions of markets that have been pushed too far: that never have been, never will be and never can be. A confused, kaleidoscopic and contradictory set of overlapping dilemmas that look nothing like the conspiracy theories of the Left, but nothing out of the fundamentally ahistorical imagination of the Right either. A strangely utopian state of affairs in which frictionless, costless, easy administration guides the people to their choices. The process by which the Conservative Party is eating itself, bit by bit - only matched, and perhaps facilitated, by the Labour Party's even faster, more radical and more obvious process of disintegration. One more game that seems as if it will never end: the chasing of a tail of perfection.

The bottom line? We live in an era clearly characterised by the nationalisation of authority, without raw power itself being available actually to forward the public good. Everyone in Whitehall and Westminster knows this, and experiences it every day. It'd just be nice if Ministers weren't quite so disingenuous about the true nature of their ideas and choices.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

English higher education: another turn of the screw

We're returning this week to the long-vexed subject of English Higher Education, for which we make no apologies, because we've just witnessed the publication of the Government's long-awaited (or feared) Green Paper on the subject. It's got to be tackled as soon as we're able, because it is full of huge changes and even-bigger implications. It's entitled Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, and you can download the whole thing here if you are really so minded.

The plans therein promise yet another upheaval for England's universities - as if they haven't seen enough of that already. Here we'll save you the bother of ploughing through all that dense exposition, announce the headlines, and then try to unpackage just how bad some of the new ideas really are. They're here: universities will be allowed to charge more if they meet certain centrally-determined indicators of teaching 'quality'. There'll be many different levels of fee increases, running perhaps from 2018, and the Government will decide every year what they'll be and how they'll be set. 

Which is about the worst, more depressing sentence we've had to write since, well, 'these student fees won't even pay for themselves', all the way back in 2011, or perhaps 'British politics is now stuck in a permanent winter', back in May, or indeed 'tax credit cuts are a deeply un-Conservative series of punishments meted out to the working poor', which we wrote in July. Maybe someone will listen to us this time, eh? Well, no, probably not, but we might as well go on writing for the sake of it anyway.

This is indeed a depressing turn of events, for we had thought that a little bit of sense and stability had broken out inside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Higher Education Minister, Jo Johnson (above), seemed like a relatively sensible and centrist Conservative; he appeared competent; he didn't seem to have the temperament for yet another revolution, on top of all the others. Universities do need more money. They've had no funding increase for teaching at all for nearly an entire Parliament. Plans emerged over the summer as to how that'd be managed. There'd be some teaching audit - definitely necessary when you're spending public money, even when most of it is lent in the first instance to students - and then, if universities met some fairly clear standards, they'd be allowed to raise fees along with inflation. So far, so straightforward.

But Mr Johnson couldn't resist it. He couldn't keep his hands off the tiller. The desire to tinker, to play around, to impose more targets and limits and numbers and data and signposts and gateposts and hurdles. He just couldn't help himself. He couldn't restrain his officials. He couldn't stop the Treasury pursuing its constant war for control and quantification and datafication. And - in the end - he couldn't un-imagine the total fiction of a utopian world of knowledge... a realm, of course, in which everything is counted, but nothing can actually be valued. So we've ended up in a place - even worse from our public policy viewpoint - where nothing makes sense even in its own terms

Anyway. Deep breaths. What has Mr Johnson actually announced? Instead of one set of fee rises after one type or round of assessment, we're going to get an unspecified number of levels of possible fee rises, permissible via Ministerial fiat when and if (eventually) four different levels of teaching 'quality' are met in a Teaching Excellence Framework. We despair. Some of the metrics used have nothing to do with teaching - the career destination of leavers, say - and many are labeling or badge-wearing exercises to do with how many qualifications staff have, how much is 'spent' per student (try working that one out on a consistent basis), how grades are provided, and so on. And on top? A load of meaningless guff about ‘compelling evidence of excellence’ to get the highest accreditation level. All assessed by expert panels and an independent Office for Students, to be sure, but with the main winners and losers then probably laid out by the Government's own bean-counters in Whitehall, who will then decide how to pay out on the basis of the TEF. Oh, and universities will have to pay for the privilege of buying into this system themselves, rather than having it paid for directly by the Government. It's pathetic. If an undergraduate handed this in, it'd get a low mark indeed.

The main problem here is not so much the marketisation - that pass was sold long ago, and the language of consumerisation and 'choice', encouraging universities to compete for as many students as they want, has been with us for some time. That's not new - and, if you are a free-market Conservative, that might be a way of increases the resources poured into, and the attention focused on, teaching rather than research, administration, engagement and outreach. We're deeply sceptical about these discourses, because if you treat academics who felt - once - as if they had a vocation to enter their profession and push forward their disciplines, and then subject them to the same cut-throat pressures and tiny little time-horizons that they could have worked within without a PhD (and for quite a bit more money), they're not exactly to do their best work. The UK has pretty much the best record for research in the world, on a per capita basis. Students still flock to come here. If you ask us, there isn't all that much that's broken in this picture. Unless, of course, you want to talk about 'freedom' while curtailing just about all of it that you can see.

No, the problem is the complexity - and the deeply un-Conservative idea that how universities behave should be further nationalised until everything looks like an M.C. Escher diagram that no-one can even understand. We're not joking, by the way - take a look at this drawing that attempts to sum up the new structure. Any the wiser? No? Well, to be honest, no-one else really is either - a scary thought if you really stop and think about it for a moment.

We've called this 'perestroika Britain' when we've written about this before: the process by which Ministers want to have their cake and eat it, setting up 'markets' that can only do what they want, taking more and more new powers to ensure that the pseudo-competition and shadow price incentives that they deploy function exactly as expected. They want the 'rigour' that they perceive in the private sector (not that Britain's is particularly rigorous, but still), but dare not suffer the apparent chaos, instability and unpopularity that unleashing actual freedom might involve - including any truly positive freedom, to perform, act, speak and innovate beyond the bounds of any civil servants' hastily-sketched imagination right now. As the bounds of what British Ministers actually control shrink to (basically) England's hospitals, schools and - what's left of - the civic infrastructure, those much-maligned little battalions of the state come in for more and more micro-management. As they do when Ministers bully universities about visa decisions, to take another example. There are many more we could pick. It's almost as if politicians have nothing better to do.

What will three or four layers of assessment and fees actually mean in practice? Well, they'll mean that universities spend an inordinate amount of time gaming out exactly where to put their investment to navigate the hoops they'll be asked to leap through. Tens of thousands of academic hours will be spent pushing a little bit of money here and there. And for what? Well, if inflation is one per cent (far above where it stands today), a Level Four award that might allow a university to charge one per cent more, rather than (say) the 0.75 per cent allowable under a Level Three award. 0.25% of many thousands of £9,000-plus fee bundles could be quite a bit of money - though possibly not worth nearly as much as all the effort and spending put in to get that money in the first place. And if inflation is zero, as it is now? Well, there'd be no point bothering, except to get the prestige that schools want when they can put a banner saying 'OFSTED Excellent' on their playing field railings. Not that that's likely to change the generations of prejudice and social networking that go into defining which are the 'best' universities anyway. While, perhaps, encouraging the process by which everyone starts to forget or ignore what makes a university great in the first place: the fact that it is full of people dedicated, with love, feeling and emotion, to the idea of learning in and of itself. And if inflation suddenly surged upwards? Does anyone seriously think that Ministers would allow five, ten, fifteen, twenty per cent fee rises in one year, as they might have had to do in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s? No, of course not.

So what we'll see can be summarised this: huge of time, energy, emotion and bureaucratic paper-shuffling in the pursuit of really quite small amounts of cash. And then, if large amounts of cash do suddenly appear on the horizon, a hastily-assembled series of retreats and limits designed to stem the flow of any money that there might be.

Shorter headline? More complexity, more work, more demands, more bureaucracy. Or we could just put it this way: more laughable absurdity.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

What are the boundaries and limits of Labour's 2020 performance?

You know what we say, when everyone says that this blog is overly gloomy? We say: it's not us, it's the numbers. It's not what we think. It's the reality. And our recent scepticism about the UK Labour Party's electoral prospects is just the same. Take a look at the two charts above (click on them to expand your view): such figures can and should be the first port of call for every historically-informed and data-capable commentator. We've assembled these from Mark Pack's invaluable opinion polls database of all the figures he's been able to get his hands on for the years since 1945. And what they show is not pleasant reading if you think that pluralist, competitive political systems are vital for good governance and a healthy democracy.

Let's start with the first chart. This shows the polling distance that separated Labour from the Conservatives each time the former party found itself in Opposition since 1970, and after six months had in each case passed since the previous election (as it has now). This doesn't actually look all that bad for Labour right now. Sure, they're an average of 6.2 per cent behind when we average out all of October's polls, but they were about the same distance behind late in 1983 too, after Mrs Thatcher's post-Falklands War landslide, and they were an enormous 13.4 per cent back late in 1987, when Thatcher's Conservatives were in the purple of their pomp - enjoying a huge economic boom, and basking in the glory of a third successive victory.

So Labour has been here before. That shouldn't, however, be entirely comforting if you are a Labour supporter, for right now they're registering polling numbers for this stage of Opposition that are worse than all but two periods in our entire recent history. Also, and of course, the party went on to lose the two elections that followed those low scores. Only where they already led by now have Labour, in modern times, ever emerged from a Parliament to win, and they even managed to lose once out of the three occasions on which they were ahead (in 1979, after which they went on to be buried while led by Michael Foot in 1983). Yes, we'll let that sink in for a moment. The fact that Labour is behind is already a red signal that they are probably about to lose again.

It gets worse. Now move on to the second chart. This examines the fall in Labour's rating from this point onwards, on every occasion they've been in Opposition. This picture isn't very pretty either. Only once, in every example we've got to look at, have they moved forward at all from the numbers they were posting six months after a General Election. And that was when they were led by Tony Blair, at the height of his remarkable popularity, and faced by an obviously flagging (and very badly divided) Conservative government that just seemed to be running out of time.

The average fall, from this point to an election four or five years hence? About 6.1 per cent - which would put Labour in 2020 right back on about 25.7 per cent, or 190 seats on the current boundaries of our 650-seat House of Commons, and winning only 170 out of 600 if the Conservatives' boundary and voting reforms go through (you can play around with election simulators such as that built by YouGov's Anthony Wells here). Think we're being too gloomy? Well, we could have included every Parliament since 1970, including those during which Labour were in government, and then the average fall from this equivalent point in time is 8.4 per cent, pushing Labour right down to a 23.4 per cent share of the vote. Then they'd win only about 170 seats on the current boundaries - or an eye-watering, epochal, shattering 145 seats on the new lines. Throughout we've held the Conservatives in our projections at a fairly realistic 40 per cent (a very, well, conservative assumption if Labour does plumb these depths). We could have made some even more fearful assumptions. You get the picture.

Now, we do know that there are all sorts of problems with these numbers. We're comparing apples with pears. Polls have undergone a number of transformations and methodological changes throughout the period under review, not least after the 1992 polling debacle which saw pollsters begin to adjust for a 'spiral of silence' in which 'shy Tories' refuse to admit their real loyalties. A lot of what is apparently a 'fall' in Labour ratings between year one and the final year of each Parliament may well have been polling error, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The polls overstated Labour in 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2015 (though not in 2010). Labour has been historically overestimated, between final polls and General Election results, by about three per cent. So the 'decline' to each result was probably less than it appears. If pollsters have now ceased to overstate Labour (if, for instance, ComRes' new and very tight voter screen is producing the 'right' results), then there'll be less decline running up to 2020. Maybe Labour will hold the line about three points above our historically-based projections here - and secure between 26.4 and 28.7 per cent of the vote. Actually, that looks a bit more realistic, doesn't it? The major problem with that less catastrophic guess, though, is as follows: it still involves wining only something like 170 to 190 seats on the new boundaries.

There are 232 Labour MPs right now. If these numbers are anything like right, somewhere between 42 and 87 of them could be losing their jobs in 2020.

Well, that's it. These are all the indicators we've got. And they say this: if history and data are any guide at all, Labour can hope, at best, only to escape from the next General Election having merely been badly defeated. But if the party is unlucky, or things go very badly for them, at one extreme of established precedent they could be facing a historic rout that will reduce them to being the party only of English and Welsh inner cities and radical university towns. At one end of the data's limits, Labour will have ceased to be a truly national party.

Don't blame us. That's what recent history suggests. This is what the numbers say: cold, clear, inescapable, and there for all to see.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Happy fifth birthday to 'Public Policy and the Past'!

So it was exactly five years ago that this blog creaked into existence, during the ferocious political storm that attended the tripling of English universities' tuition fees to £9,000 (above). And ever since, we've been trying to do two things: first, apply a long-term view to public policy problems; and second, comment on and deploy data and statistics (with all their weaknesses) to the problems of collective decision making. It's been a long five years, and all the time the political weather has got worse and worse for such rational and reasoned approaches. But we've been here the whole time, looking backwards and forward as the scene has darkened and the days have got shorter. And we're going to be here, too, as the days lengthen and the season warms - as sense and progress grow again. Eventually. Some day.

But how have we done? Have we been a good guide to public policy and events, or a poor predictor of what's going to happen? Have we been accurate, precise, to the point - or got everything really, really wrong?

The record's mixed. But that's as it should be. And at least we've been showing our workings, plodding, pedestrian and difficult as they may have been, when we're wrong, we say so. And we expose the reasons why. That's how learning happens.

On the credit side? Well, we started - all those years ago - with a warning that it was the affordability, rather than necessarily the social effects, of tripling those university fees that we should worry about. And as the amounts to be recouped from students have fallen and fallen - as future wage projections have dropped and dropped - our views have been borne out. In fact, things are worse than we feared. Quite a lot less than half the money given to universities by the Government for tuition will never come back from student fee repayments. The whole 'reform' has shifted this spending from the red 'debit' side of the Government's balance sheet to the black 'credit' side (since these are now debts that will flow back in at some point). But the taxpayer's going to be no better off - and may well, if fees rise in the future far beyond £9,000, indeed be paying even more than before. Okay, that's probably what would have happened anyway had Her Majesty's Government just stumped up the cash: but students wouldn't have been left £30,000, £40,000 or £50,000 in debt as a side-effect.

Then there was the whole question of how well Labour would do in the 2015 General Election. We held Labour to a high bar, and we noticed, in local elections, by-elections and national (Scottish and Welsh) contests that the party was doing much less well than previous Oppositions that had gone on to wield actual power. We never thought that Labour would win. We thought they were overstretched, organisationally and intellectually. And we were right. Now, like everyone else clued up on the numbers, we thought that would mean that the Conservatives would be the largest party in a Hung Parliament, and be able to go on governing with the Liberal Democrats - not that there would be an outright Conservative majority. But Labour's defeat jumped out of every statistically-informed and historical look at the numbers. And so it proved.

Next there was the vexed question of Scottish independence. Here, though the ambition is a noble and admirable one, we were very worried about the economic gamble that this would represent. Hold on, we said: Scotland's economy, though richer than most, is quite narrowly focused on oil, gas, tourism, financial services, and whisky. What if one went awry? What if one was knocked away? What would happen to the value of any new currency, or to fiscal transfers within any shaky currency union cooked up with England and Wales? Well, although no-one and nothing could have allowed us to predict what did in fact happen, this happened with a vengeance when the bottom fell out of the oil market from exactly the moment of the referendum, with oil prices more than halving since the autumn of 2014. This meant that the Scottish people, in voting to stay part of the UK, avoided a potentially catastrophic implosion of their welfare state - of which all British citizens are (for now) rightly proud - and massive cuts to all types of social provision. What did we say then?
Because North Sea oil and gas prices have been falling - even further and faster since this referendum campaign began. Were we to experience an oil price shock downwards on the scale of the mid-1980s, Scotland would be in deep trouble indeed. And although estimates of reserves quite properly vary (and therefore the tax take will be different depending on who you listen to) the key point to take away is that this is a highly unstable and moving target.
Exactly, to the letter, what did then happen, which would necessitate £6bn of government cuts just for an independent Scotland to stay still as against any rump UK's (rather better) fiscal position. We can't really claim foresight here with too much confidence, because we were just pointing at a balance of risks, but when the risk explodes right at the moment you write it up, it's something to have at least said that the danger was there.

Oh yes, and today of all days, let's just remember: we said back in July that the Conservative Government's cuts to working tax credits could turn into a political disaster. Thank you very much, yes, that was quite prescient, wasn't it?

Now it's not always been seer-like accuracy. We thought that Greece would leave the Euro, and we thought that the United States Presidential election of 2012 was going to be a bit closer than it actually turned out to be (though, again, we predicted the winner fairly accurately, if just going along with the best commentators and statistics gurus can really be called 'predicting'). Even here, though, we learned something. In the first instance, we learned that even Leftist Greeks, when it really came down to it, weren't prepared to leave the Euro and re-establish their own currency. They would rather wait for a very unclear and half-promised further debt writedown than gamble everything on busting out of 'austerity', that great but over-used watchword of the Twitter commentariat. For they knew that an even greater austerity might await if they did leave the Euro, and lost all support for their banks and re-issued Drachma. And in the US? Well, we learned that the chaff fired off by those who questioned the polls showing President Obama narrowly ahead was just that - obfuscation and wishful thinking. In the end, disassembling what you see in the samples and then rebuilding it all to suit your own worldview is not a good look. Not at all.

The lessons? From both success and setback, when we tried to look ahead? Take the long view. Use data. Follow your evidence, rather than your prejudices. Look at what policies have and haven't worked in the past. Think about risk. Be cautious. Inch forwards, rather than leaping in the dark. In short? Don't forget your policy history - a view we're going to continue to write for and speak for, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Britain's housing crisis: we need new ideas

If you're a regular reader of Public Policy and the Past, you'll know that we think Britain faces a housing emergency. It doesn't build nearly enough dwellings to meet demand: it's that simple, and that clear. Everything else - high prices, higher and higher rents, homelessness, the UK's long hours and hardscrabble pay culture, even the inequity of vast inheritances that have nothing to do with skill or effort - stem from this one brute fact. The value of the UK's housing stock? Oh, only £5.75 trillion, a figure probably about four times larger than its mere Gross Domestic Product.

That's why we see rents, now, following prices and spiraling out of control - at least in London and the South East, and a few other attractive and desirable southern cities. That's why footballers have to allow squatters to stay in their properties for the winter. That's why the number of rough sleepers is mounting, after years in abeyance as a widespread, acute social problem. That's why young people are crushed in with their parents, and one of the reasons wealth inequality (if not income inequality) is growing. 

It's housing. It's always been housing, of course, in the property-obsessed badlands of England's vast suburbs, quiet terraces and airless cul-de-sacs. Who expects anything else in an English conversation - at the school gate, at the dinner table, in the pub? For a people with no religion but a rather watery and declining Anglicanism, no politics beyond 'the Conservatives are businessmen, Labour will blow my money and muck everything up', and no ambition beyond making their fortress homes ever more secure, what else could there be?

So we've said, again and again and again. What we really need is a wartime sense of fair shares and joint endeavour, all the better to help everyone's children. What we need is a tough, energetic, ambitious (and perhaps cynical and self-interested) Minister such as Harold Macmillan, willing to smash through any and all obstacles to just get the damn things built. In their hundreds of thousands. What we require is the spirit of the Victorians, not to say 'no, we can't', but 'yes we can', every single time there's a planning objection or a not-in-my-back-yard hand stuck up in objection from some older citizen with a one million pound property that might be threatened. We need entirely new cities and towns, along the lines of the Edwardian garden cities and the post-Second World War New Towns, with freestanding Corporations set up on green field sites to bulldoze opposition out of the way.

All this we know. It's as plain as Britain's desperate need for better labour productivity, an infrastructure strategy, a proper immigration policy (that leaves students out of the numbers), more help for the young rather than the old, a more confident sense of the UK's place in Europe and the world, and above all a feeling of purpose beyond just cutting the deficit - a grey, tired old target that probably isn't going to be reached, and hasn't in the past been reached, on time anyway. 

But that's the macroscope. The big picture. How will the extra homes be delivered in detail? It's a given that we probably need to double our housing output, after a long recession which laid off many building workers, burdened by volume housebuilders who aren't particularly efficient or vigorous, soaring land prices where we need the homes, and a lack of skills and imagination in the construction industry, All of that holds back many new or innovative solutions.

So it's going to be tough. We're burdened at the moment by two main political parties who are particularly hard of thinking. The Conservatives in office are forcing local authorities to sell off their 'high value' properties without adequate compensation to councils themselves, further restricting the supply of social housing. At the same time, they have bullied Housing Associations into a 'right to buy' scheme that may be a little less crazed than the original series of threats issued during the General Election, but which nonetheless will make it more difficult for Associations to borrow money and build (since their stock and capital is now probably going to leak away). On the Labour side, the new Corbynite leadership of the Opposition has so far promised only private-sector rent controls - which, if implemented in any crude form, would probably dry up housing supply in a private rental market the lack of which was a missing fourth leg of housing supply throughout the post-Second World War era. It's a popular idea, as rents skyrocket. It's also a terrible one, much better supplanted in practice for the more Milibandite concept of granting more rights to existing tenants - a compromise that would slow and regulate, but not calcify, the movement of rental prices.

Anyway. So much for our little-vaunted and (let's face it) pitiful leaders. Public policy experts are on our own. And here there are some new ideas, for instance floated by Andrew Adonis, who recently decided to sit as a crossbencher in the House and Lords and to take up the chair of the Government's new-old Infrastructure Commission. As Adonis points out, there are plenty of landowners in the state and third sectors who could be encouraged or cajoled to open up sites for development. Take London. Transport for London owns perhaps 5,800 acres of that city, a larger resource than the entire surface area of the Borough of Camden. Much of that's in use as tracks or the like, of course, but much of it is not - and, although there is no central register of London land owned by Network Rail, they are probably in possession of just as much land themselves. Why not allow them to borrow to build on that land? Above stations, sinking platforms underground? At their termini? Allowing them to float bonds or to borrow specifically for housing, then ploughing back the profits into operations? It's a thought, and a start. 

Next up: why don't we reform or abolish Stamp Duty, levied on house sales, and Council Tax, raised on housing value but with bands that stop at an absurdly low level? If we abolished the former, and announced a whole load of new bands on top of the latter to help pay for the change, we could make sure that they didn't encourage people to stay in their big houses as they age, or their children leave. That'd help pass houses down the chain of owners and ages much more quickly than they can be sold and bought today.

And then there's the vexed question of the Green Belt. Much of this land is not green, not used for amenity, and not even that useful for farming. It's just sitting there, idle, pushing up weeds. We could push great big wedges of development into our big cities on that territory, as some of the most successful cities in the world have in fact done (hello, Copenhagen). We could allow the new devolved city governments of (say) South Yorkshire and Manchester to marshal and profit from those changes. Central government could announce these new housing zones zero-rated for Capital Gains Tax, or pay the council tax there for a period, or introduce special infrastructure incentives in those areas. It's eventually worked in East London and at Canary Wharf. It could unleash the potential in our cities starting right now, if it's just all given a chance. It'd be popular (opens as PDF), overall. But - and this is still more important - it'd be right.

Britain's housing market is swallowing hopes, dreams, cash and energy. If we let it, it could swallow our economy too, in yet another credit-filled binge on bricks and mortar. Our political parties have abdicated from real leadership in this field as in so many others, perhaps for some years to come. We're going to have to press for change ourselves. City governments, academics, planners, homeowners, citizens: we're on our own. Are you up for it?