Posts Tagged ‘Theresa May’

Corbyn’s manifesto is great. Labour is still going to lose.

Corbyn Labour Coup

The UK’s Labour Party yesterday announced its manifesto for the upcoming general election. It’s a dramatically different vision to the path the Conservative party has laid out for the country, and unsurprisingly, it is the most left-wing manifesto the party has had since the rise of “New Labour” under Tony Blair in the late 1990s. Contrary to the scoffing of some on the right, however, it’s far from being a loony-leftie document that appeals only to the fringes. If anything, it’s an incredibly populist manifesto; the majority of its policies enjoy very broad support from the British electorate.

The right-wing press argues that the manifesto shows Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, trying to return the UK to the “bad old days” of the 1970s (yes, that’s the same right-wing press that’s had a months-long priapism over notions like returning to Imperial weights and measures, or issuing blue-coloured passports; the existence of irony, it seems, is just another EU strategy to undermine Brexit). To some extent, they’re right; the manifesto does hark back to the pre-Thatcher years in parts, with policies aimed at undoing some of the more egregious mistakes of the neo-liberal policy regimes of the past 35 years. These include the ideologically motivated privatisation of a number of natural monopolies like public transport and energy, or the underhanded social engineering that saw council housing being sold off cheaply and never replaced, both of which date back to the early 1980s and are targeted in the manifesto.

Rather than arguing back and forth about the benefits of various different aspects of the manifesto, though, the point I want to make is that regardless of whether you consider these policies to be economically sensible or politically desirable, they’re undeniably popular. Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown – with margins that defy post-Brexit, post-Trump scepticism about polling – that the British public support the renationalisation of rail and other core services, want to see council housing stocks replenished, and favour the roll-back of the most extreme deregulations of the labour market, such as zero-hours contracts. If you go through the Labour manifesto line-by-line with British voters, you’ll find a strong majority in favour of pretty much every major policy in the document. The last manifesto to enjoy such a strong level of support was probably Blair’s in 1997 – a very different manifesto for a very different time.

Blair won 1997 in a historic landslide. Corbyn, for all that his policies resonate, is going to lose, and lose badly – likely handing Theresa May’s Conservatives a significantly boosted majority in the House of Commons, and perhaps losing key seats once seen as Labour strongholds. This is in spite of the fact that May’s Conservative policies are actually pretty unpopular; “Hard Brexit” is opposed by a plurality of the electorate, and some of her policies around things like education, the NHS and fox-hunting (yes, the fox-hunting debate is back) are opposed by a significant majority. It doesn’t matter; she’s going to win the most convincing Conservative electoral victory in a generation.

What this means, from a political science wonk perspective, is that a significant part of the British electorate is going to go out and vote for a party whose policies they disagree with. It flies in the face of certain fields of theory, which try to link the policy preferences of voters to their choices in elections, or to model the behaviour of candidates as principal-agent relationships – in which voters (principals) elect candidates as their “agents”, who go on to represent the policy interests of the voters in order to ensure future re-election. There’s more complexity to those models, but in essence they all assume the same fundamental thing – that voters have policy preferences, and that they evaluate the distance between their own preferences and those of electoral candidates, and assess the candidates according to that measure. If you have an election in which a large portion of voters who prefer nationalisation, labour market protections and investment in social housing knowingly go out and elect candidates who want to privatise the NHS, deregulate labour markets and leave housing entirely in the private sector; well, something is up.

Specifically, what’s up is valence issues. You can broadly divide the issues of concern to voters in elections into two categories. The first category is position issues – these are issues on which parties, and voters, have divided views. Things like immigration policy, Brexit, nationalisation, labour market reforms and so on are position issues, because different voters and parties have different positions on these issues. Even where a majority of voters lean a certain direction (for example, about 80% of UK voters oppose a repeal of the fox-hunting ban), the existence of a minority who believe otherwise turns this into a position issue. We pay a lot of attention to position issues, because they fit neatly with a lot of fundamental theories about policy preferences. Perhaps more importantly, they also fit comfortably with most peoples’ basic understanding of how democracy is meant to work, and provide points of disagreement and debate which are interesting to follow as they unfold in newspapers and other media.

The second category of issue is valence issues. Valence issues are things on which the vast majority of people and parties actually agree. For example, “enhanced prosperity”, or “lower crime”, or “better education”, or “lower unemployment”; these are all things that just about every voter, and every political party, agrees to be positive. There’s lots of disagreement about how you achieve those things, of course, but fundamentally if you’re talking about issues of economic growth, human security and so on, you’re talking about a valence issue – something everyone wants to attain, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum or how they feel about all the various position issues.

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t going to lose this election over position issues. On position issues, he’s good; the British electorate agrees with him, so much so that in an election where only the position issues mattered, he’d likely win the biggest majority Labour has ever held. You can imagine this in the form of a thought experiment; imagine a voting system where party and candidate names never appeared, and people simply selected their preferred policies, with their vote ultimately going to the party whose policies most closely match the voter’s. Assuming a kind of “veil of ignorance”, wherein voters could not guess which policies belonged to which party and thus couldn’t bias their selections according to party identification, Labour would win a huge majority this time out.

But Jeremy Corbyn is going to lose, because this election – like many in recent years – isn’t about position issues, it’s about valence issues. What valence issues boil down to is a simple question; given a core value that everyone agrees about, like “prosperity” or “security”, do you trust a given party or candidate to be able to deliver it? It’s not an assessment of policy, or a weighing of manifesto promises; it’s a simple, visceral and quite emotional choice of whether you think a person or a party has the competence to deliver the key social goods that a nation requires. Time and again in recent decades, we’ve seen electorates go to the polls, hold their noses, and vote for a party they fundamentally disagree with on many issues simply because they believe that that party is more competent and capable on the most fundamental issues of all, the valence issues.

Theresa May – for all that she has not been a particularly competent or capable leader, much as she was not particularly impressive as Home Secretary before – understands valence issues to a degree that Corbyn does not. While Corbyn has crafted policies on position issues which most of the UK electorate agrees with, May has focused entirely on projecting an image of strength and competence. She may be mocked for her constant and rather robotic delivery of her “strong and stable government” line, but it’s a good line; it speaks directly to the heart of the valence issues most people are basing their choices on. In fact, it’s rather hard to pin down the Conservatives’ exact policy positions on many things in this election, precisely because the whole party is running on valence. They’re avoiding talking about position issues, partially because they remain a party deeply divided on many of them, but mostly because their entire election pitch is that they’re a safe, competent pair of hands on the wheel, with little reference to where they’re actually planning on steering. Look also at how right-wing media and politicians alike respond to Labour’s policies. Rather than presenting an alternative or a competing worldview, their attacks are always based on claims that Labour is being unrealistic, or living in a fantasy land; that no matter how much you may like Labour’s policies (because the right wing knows that Labour’s positions are more popular), Labour in general and Corbyn specifically are too incompetent, too chaotic and too risky to put into power.

That’s why the Labour manifesto, for all that it’s a great document, isn’t going to mean much of anything in the long run. The problem isn’t that it’s too left-wing or too radical; it’s pretty apparent that the British public is quite receptive to some radical policy prescriptions on key areas right now. Rather, the problem is that Labour under Corbyn has done little to make people feel like the party has the competence to execute those policies. While those of us following the Brexit negotiations closely may be dumbfounded by the lack of competence and professionalism being demonstrated by the Conservative leadership in this area, that’s not the story that’s filtering through to the majority of UK voters. For them, the Conservatives are a competent party with some distasteful policies – and they’ll vote for that over a chaotic, incompetent party with lovely policies any day.

How did Labour get here? The blame, ultimately, has to rest with Corbyn; he’s leader, and the buck stops there. Certainly, the failure of the party’s centrists to unite behind the leader (even after their coup attempt collapsed) is also a major factor, but if Corbyn had cultivated a personal popularity beyond core leftist support then even his ideological opponents would have fallen in line. The party is fractured not because Corbyn has a different ideology to many of the Blair-era MPs, but because Corbyn is an electoral liability to the party. His great failure, I think, is that he truly believes that politics is about putting out the right policies and creating a manifesto people agree with; he has neglected the actual role of a modern party leader, which involves building a personal image of competence and leadership, and being an electoral asset for your party members around the country.

You can blame the media’s coverage of Corbyn and Labour for that negative image, as many of the party faithful do, and there’s some merit to that; but in the age of SNS and new media, Corbyn has shown no aptitude for engaging with the public through alternative channels and effectively challenging the narratives of the right-wing press. Again, I think, the problem is that he wants to let his policies do the talking, not realising that most people will not cast their vote based on policies. That’s a miscalculation that’s likely going to cost Labour a great many seats next month – because the greatest manifesto in the world is meaningless if you don’t believe Jeremy Corbyn is capable of delivering on its promises.

No Confidence – and not just in Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

Five days after Brexit, the impact of the UK’s vote to leave the EU is becoming clearer. Nowhere is that impact being felt more keenly than at the top of the country’s major political parties. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has quit – declining to trigger the Article 50 negotiations on EU exit, stating that this would be a decision for his successor, and reportedly saying to aides in Number 10, “why should I have to do the hard shit?” For a move being hailed in some quarters as a scheming act of political calculation deserving of a sub-plot on Game of Thrones, it looks remarkably like a surly table-flip from a man who had just lost a very foolish bet. The Conservative party finds itself in disarray. People like George Osbourne and Boris Johnson, whose support for Leave was entirely designed to undermine Cameron and vacate the Prime Minister’s job for himself, have recognised the the land-mine that Cameron chucked underneath the chair as he departed and are backing rapidly away from the top job. Meanwhile, political lightweights barely deserving of the term “mediocrity”, like fatuous NHS hatchet-man Jeremy Hunt, witlessly toss their hats into the ring.

While the Tories were fractured throughout the campaign and now find themselves split more deeply than ever before, Labour backed the Remain campaign with fairly solid party unity. My former MP, serial dissenter Kate Hoey, was one of only a handful of Labour MPs to rebel and support Leave; 99.2% of Labour MPs supported Remain. Given the anger, fear and upset over the Leave vote, the disorganisation of the leaderless and rudderless Conservatives, and the potential for striking strong alliances with strongly pro-remain local parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland, you’d think that Labour would be out there making plenty of hay in the bright sunshine, wouldn’t you?

Well, you’d think that. Instead, most of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet has resigned, and a vote of no confidence in the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been passed by a huge margin. 172 MPs voted no confidence, to 40 who supported Corbyn (13 abstained, and 4 MPs spoiled their ballots, which I hope was a slightly pointless protest and not an indication that Labour has four elected MPs who don’t know how ballot papers work). Corbyn says he won’t resign. There’ll probably be a leadership challenge. Just as the Conservatives find themselves in crisis, Labour has found a way to sink into an even deeper crisis.

Of course they have. We’re talking about Labour, a party riven right down the middle by a deeper divide than Tory Euroskeptics could ever create; the divide between the shiny-faced, PR-groomed New Labour generation, and the frumpy, stubborn and sincere old socialists. The former group are career politicians who, though often possessed of fine qualities and beliefs, fundamentally pursue little other than re-election, and believe fervently in the pursuit of politics through opinion polling, focus groups and post-modern campaign methods. The latter are generally drawn from activist or trade union backgrounds and see their socialist beliefs as a hill worth dying on; hardened by Labour’s years in the electoral wilderness in the 80s and 90s, they regard electoral failure as a price worth paying for staying true to their principles.

Right now, one of the old socialists is in charge of the Labour party for the first time in a generation. Corbyn was voted in by a huge margin by a combination of long-term rank-and-file Labour members and a wave of newcomers shocked by the Conservatives’ 2015 election victory and enthused by Corbyn’s sincere, unpolished approach. The party loves Corbyn – polls of Labour members suggest he’s actually grown in popularity since his landslide election. Labour MPs, on the other hand, hate him. They’re mostly drawn from the ranks of New Labour and remain starry-eyed over the success of the Blair era, thus innately suspicious of the resurrected spectre of 80s and 90s Old Labour – but even among those who aren’t, their immediate concerns and motivations are simple; they want to keep their jobs. They want to be re-elected. To the MPs who make up the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the principles and policies of the Labour leadership play second fiddle to the leadership’s ability to retain its seats in parliament.

Ever since Corbyn took the helm of the Labour party, he’s struggled to maintain control of the PLP. Some MPs are loyal to him because they genuinely believe in him and his principles. Others are loyal because they respect the position of leader and the decision of the party members. On the other side, some are intrinsically, vehemently opposed to him because they disagree with his principles and positions. In the middle rests the majority of the PLP – who fear that Corbyn can’t win an election, but were willing to hold their peace and give him a shot at the leadership, since the next election wasn’t scheduled until 2020.

It’s now extremely unlikely that the next election will be in 2020. Brexit has upended all political calculations. By far the most likely outcome is a general election before the end of this year. The new Conservative leader will not only face an impossible decision regarding the EU exit trigger, he or she will also be seen to lack a mandate to govern. That will be even more the case if, as is likely, it’s one of the party’s rather less impressive specimens at the helm, with “big beasts” like Boris Johnson, George Osbourne and Theresa May keeping their distance from the poisoned chalice.

When Jeremy Corbyn took over Labour and the centrist / right-leaning sides of the party and the media brayed with horror about his consigning the party to electoral purgatory, I argued that Corbyn’s job was not, for now, to win elections. With five years to the next election, his job was to move the Overton Window of Britain’s political conversation; to shift the range of “acceptable” policies and positions, which has drifted inexorably rightwards since the late 1970s, back towards the centre-left. He needed to make it possible to discuss economic inequality, workers’ rights, trade unions, the social compact and redistributive justice without being automatically labelled a “loony leftie” – so a leader, himself or another, championing those things in 2020 could actually stand to win an election. The only way to do that is to keep discussing those things, to be called a “loony leftie” and far worse so many times that the words lose their meaning and your views start to become not crazy, or wild-eyed, but a regular part of political discourse.

That approach takes time. Labour has run out of time. An election in 2016 could, some argue, see Labour wiped out in northern seats that voted strongly to leave the EU. Even with the Tories crisis-struck and infighting, Labour hasn’t had the time or opportunity required to shunt the national debate to the left; Labour MPs fear for their seats even in the most favourable electoral climate for them in a generation. So they want Corbyn gone; they want someone more traditionally “electable”, more slick in presentation, more willing to listen to focus groups and do what’s needed to win an election today, not to change a national conversation in five years’ time.

They’re not wrong. I believe that Britain’s political debate has been utterly poisoned by a shift to the right that has made voices of fascism and authoritarianism more valid and credible than voices calling for centre-leftist redistribution and justice. I believe that the only way Labour reclaims its heartland districts and the trust of the British working classes is by re-embracing social democracy and being willing to grit its teeth and champion unpopular things like trade unions and workers’ rights, fighting through the scorn until they’re re-established as a pillar of British society. I believe that a leader like Corbyn, for all his failings, could play a vital role in that slow, difficult and necessary process.

I also believe in political realities, though, and the political reality is that Corbyn lacks authority within his own party and has yet to make significant headway on making his arguments sound valid to the electorate. Those plotting against Corbyn are despicable opportunists in many regards, but even while finding their nakedly careerist ambitions contemptible (Hilary Benn, a profoundly unimpressive politician who owes his entire career to the fact that his father was Labour stalwart Tony Benn, is a particularly egregious example) it’s hard to deny that they have a point. Labour going into a 2016 election under Corbyn poses a profound risk not only to the Labour Party and their seats, but to the people they are meant to represent.

Consider; whatever Conservative party emerges from its current mess will almost certainly be more right-wing and illiberal than its current incarnation. It’s unlikely to win many extra seats in the election – it’s more likely to slide backwards, and Labour may even win some seats from them. However, emboldened by Brexit, the even more aggressively far-right UKIP could win several seats, granting the far-right party more MPs from traditional Labour heartlands. The Tories, losing their slim majority, would face another coalition – either with their old partners, the Liberal Democrats, whom Cameron used effectively to hold back the right-wingers in his own party during the last coalition government, or with UKIP. With the right wing in control of the Conservative party, unleashed by Brexit and Cameron’s resignation, they’re unlikely to countenance another coalition with the Lib Dems; a nightmare coalition of a right-leaning Conservative party, the borderline fascist UKIP and the Ulster Unionists seems perhaps the most likely outcome of a Labour stumble in the 2016 General Election.

That would spell catastrophe for the UK as a whole, but even more so for the British working classes whom Labour is tasked, often thanklessly, to represent. The further austerity and erosion of rights for workers, tenants and consumers that would result would be nothing short of obscene; the damage to Britain’s hard-won and fragile social cohesion between diverse ethnic groups would be absolute, and absolutely heart-breaking.

Corbyn was the right leader for Labour when the task was to drag the party, and then the British people, back to firm centre-left ground – when stubbornness and a willingness to shrug off unpopularity were the key requirements for the role. Corbyn hasn’t changed, but the job has. The job now is to mitigate the damage of Brexit and to avoid plunging Britain into an even deeper crisis at the likely impending election. Corbyn isn’t the man for that job. While the disloyalty and scheming of those who have plotted against him from the outset should never be forgotten (we can hope that several of them will be de-selected by their local parties in retribution), many of the 172 who voted against him this week have done so out of genuine fear not just for their own jobs but for the future of the UK. Corbyn is the right man, but this is the wrong time.

Sadly, the very stubbornness that made him perfect for the job of changing the Labour party is now preventing him from doing the decent thing and stepping down. Labour’s best hope is a quick challenge, a decent new leader (Angela Eagle wouldn’t be a bad choice, all things considered) and a rapid healing process allowing them to get this behind them before the Conservatives get their house sufficiently in order to consider a general election. The Corbyn “project” will have to be paused – but the alternative is so very much worse.