Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016


Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Corbyn and Antisemitism


There is no doubt that the Labour party has an antisemitism problem. But the figures (see below) suggest it involves a tiny minority. Claims that the party is “riddled with antisemitism” are a deliberate lie. What makes antisemitism claims against Labour powerful is that they are associated with Jeremy Corbyn. In particular many have suggested that Corbyn himself is antisemitic. And if you present the evidence is a certain way the claim looks like a strong one.

I am no Corbyn fan, and actively campaigned against him in 2016. My problem with him was not antisemitism, but Brexit, and my fears came to pass this summer. But I could see immediately that there was something odd about the evidence produced to suggest Corbyn was antisemitic. With a couple of exceptions, they all related to his championing of the Palestinian cause. And with possibly one exception, none of them involved him actually making any antisemitic statements.

As the volume of attacks against Labour and Corbyn himself increased, I thought I should look at some of this evidence against him more carefully. I also had some very personal reasons for wanting to find the truth. It is a long post I’m afraid, but if you want to do justice to the issue it has to be.

Evidence against Corbyn

I will restrict myself here to four of the most common pieces of evidence quoted.

  1. Saying Zionists don’t understand English irony, despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives”.

This is the only example I can find of Corbyn making an allegedly antisemitic statement. “When he implies that, however long they have lived here, Jews are not fully British, he is using the language of classic pre-war European anti-Semitism” said a former Chief Rabbi, But, as with so many of these claims, the context is rarely given.

Corbyn was commenting after the Palestinian ambassador to the U.K., who was born and raised in Jerusalem, had made an ironic statement. Corbyn made the observation that when the ambassador had made the same comment in his address to parliament, some Zionists in the audience “berated” the ambassador for what he said.

He said that those who berated the ambassador “don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony either.” By comparison, Corbyn went on, “Manuel does understand English irony, and uses it very effectively.” So Corbyn was not making a remark about all Zionists, let alone all Jews, but a few in particular - those who had misunderstood the ambassador’s remark at the time. There is no hint of any generalisation from a particular group of Zionists to all Zionists in the UK.

This is a classic example of how remarks, taken out of context, can be given a different and much more sinister meaning.

  1. Corbyn once invited a preacher who has peddled antisemitic myths to tea at the House of Commons and introduced him in a flattering way.

This is one of many examples where Corbyn is accused of antisemitism because he has had some brief association with people who are antisemitic. But in none of these cases did the association arise because the person was antisemitic. Instead these associations typically result from Corbyn’s support for the Palestinian cause. Now you can fairly accuse Corbyn of not being careful in who he associates with. He also famously invited IRA members to Parliament, and has appeared on Iran state TV.

There are many similar allegations to this example, but much the same allegations can be laid at the door of Benjamin Netanyahu. The Conservatives tried this guilt by association tactic when attacking Sadiq Khan in the London mayor elections.

  1. He is alleged to have laid a wreath to honour terrorists.

The context. He was attending a ceremony at a cemetery in Tunis to commemorate those killed in Israel’s 1985 airstrike on the PLO HQ, which was condemned by the UN, Thatcher and Reagan. But others are buried at that cemetery, one of whom is accused by the US and Israel of being strongly linked to terrorism. Was a wreath laid on his grave during the ceremony? Was it as well or instead of the graves of those killed by the internationally condemned Israeli airstrike? If it was laid at the grave of the alleged terrorist, did Corbyn knowingly lay that wreath? None of that is known.

If you say that Corbyn laid a wreath at the grave of someone who spilled innocent Jewish blood, it sounds very bad and certainly would make you worry. But the context is Corbyn’s support for the Palestinian cause, which is why he was at that cemetery. Context is important. If you think anyone who supports Palestinians to the degree that Corbyn does is antisemitic, I would suggest that is a dangerous conclusion, particularly as I note above his level of commitment is similar to his involvement in other causes.

  1. He failed to recognise an antisemitic mural for what it was

Context. In 2012 on Facebook Corbyn supported an artist who was being forced to take down a mural because it was antisemitic. On seeing the mural again after Labour MP Luciana Berger, who has since joined the Lib Dems, raised the issue, Corbyn agreed the mural was antisemitic and apologised.

Corbyn’s initial failure to call the mural antisemitic was clearly a mistake, but was it a sign of antisemitism? Some comparison here is useful. When YouGov asked a represented sample of people for their views on seven statements involving common antisemitic tropes about Jewish people, 40% of men agreed with at least one. Conservative party members were more likely to agree with one than Labour voters. Does this mean that 40% of UK men are antisemitic? Obviously failure to recognise antisemitic tropes does not make you antisemitic. Knowingly using them does.

The evidence no one talks about

I think it is clear that the ‘irony’ quote was not in the least bit antisemitic, which means that Corbyn has never made any antisemitic statement. That means he is either not antisemitic, or has incredible self control. But consider the following, which are never mentioned by the media:

  1. He took part in a campaign to overturn a decision by Islington Council to allow a Jewish cemetery to be sold to developers

  2. In 2002 he led a clean up of a Finsbury Park Synagogue after an attack

  3. In 2010 he supported an Early Day Motion (by Dianne Abbott) calling for the UK govt to resettle Yemeni Jews in the UK. There are scores of similar motions supported by Corbyn that condemn antisemitism, holocaust denial and so on.

  4. The many people who know him well and do not necessarily support his politics, some of whom are Jews, who say they do not think he is antisemitic. John Bercow, for example said “Known him 22 years, never detected even a whiff of anti semitism” and added “I haven't experienced one incident of anti semitism from anyone in Labour”.

Not the kind of things you would expect of someone who is antisemitic. People can make up their own mind on the basis of this or other evidence, but what I see are the action of a lifelong anti-racist and supporter of the Palestinian cause who is sometimes less careful than he should be when pursuing the causes he supports, and is not nearly critical enough of people who he believes are on the side of the poor and oppressed.

Media influence

There are I think two additional things that influence a lot of people. The first is the poll suggesting that 87% of Jewish people think Corbyn is antisemitic. The second is that all they ever see in the media are negative stories about Labour antisemitism. That must have come from somewhere people think. The two claims are linked, so let me deal with them in reverse order.

It is certainly the case that the media is full of stories about Labour antisemitism. You will find it hard to find anything like the kind of account presented here. It is of course exactly what you would expect from the right wing press. But in papers that are not right wing, or from the BBC, you will also find the allegations against Corbyn with little or (more often) no defence or attempt at balance. Furthermore the media talks about Labour antisemitism far more than it talks about the, at least as serious, problem of Tory Islamophobia (see below).

The left would say this is because everyone is biased against Labour. I think there is more to it. Claims of antisemitism against Corbyn are newsworthy because they come from current or former Labour MPs. Does that make them more credible? Here we have to talk about agendas. Ever since Corbyn got elected there have been some within Labour who wanted above all else to bring him down, and in their eyes ‘get their party back’. Just as with the press, they have no problem with criticising their leader. . 

But there is another reason. Journalists are impressed by the 87% figure for Jews who believe Corbyn is antisemitic. The same poll found that 39% of the UK public thought the same. Let me start with the second figure. Why do a large proportion of the general public think Corbyn is antisemitic? Because they read articles in a Corbyn-hostile press and reports on the BBC. They see the evidence presented above put in an incomplete way such that it appears to make a strong case.

Exactly the same is true among Jewish voters except more so. A Jewish Chronicle poll before the 2015 election had 69% of Jewish voters voting Conservative. Mainstream Jewish papers like the Jewish Chronicle are strongly hostile to the Labour party when the Labour party supports the Palestinian cause, as it did under Ed Miliband. The Jewish Chronicle's editor, former Express and Mail writer Stephen Pollard, is no friend of the left, having written in 2006 "The Left, in any recognisable form, is now the enemy." The Chronicle has run a relentless campaign against Corbyn, and other Jewish papers have followed the Chronicle’s lead. What information do most people have about Corbyn's alleged antisemitism than the media they read? 

Unfortunately some on the right of politics today do tend to smear any opponents of the current government of Israel with the charge of antisemitism. Just look at the US. Right wing politicians have been free with charges of antisemitism against the two Muslim Democratic members of Congress, with little or no cause. This is how the political right in the UK and the US, and their media supporters, now behave.

Am I saying that most Jews call Corbyn antisemitic because they don’t like his support for the Palestinians? No. I’m saying that they see the evidence presented in a way that deliberately paints Corbyn as antisemitic and follow that evidence. In addition some of that evidence presented in this way will be much more potent if you feel a connection to Israel. I think this point is made rather well by Jack Shamash.

One final point is that it is not true that the entire Jewish community think Corbyn is antisemtic. There are plenty of Jews in the Labour party, and some Jewish candidates for Labour in the coming election. Many Jews support Corbyn, and he has been supported by some rabbis. (Incidentally and perhaps revealingly the only source I could find for this after an extensive search is one I would not normally rely on, but this article suggests it is correct.)

Antisemitism in the Labour party

There remains the issue of the extent of antisemitism within Labour, and whether the leadership is indifferent to it. There is no doubt that Labour have an antisemitism problem within its membership. Indeed, given much of the left’s stance on the Israel/Palestine conflict and Labour’s ‘for the many not the few’ slogan, it would be rather surprising if antisemites, who believe the conflict is a convenient way of expressing their antisemitism or who believe conspiracies about Jewish bankers, were not attracted to be Labour members. 

I also think there is a regrettable tendency of a few who support Palestine to go over the top in their criticism of Israel. Calling for the end of the Jewish state is antisemitic in my book, and comparing Israel’s actions to anything done by the Nazi’s is shockingly insensitive as well as being inaccurate. If they are confronted by statements of that kind, it is not surprising that Jewish members feel very uncomfortable. But given all that, it is also worth noting that one survey suggested that in the UK and US there was less antisemitism on the left than the right, and less antisemitism than average among those critical of Israel.

But hearing about cases of antisemitism in a biased press is a terrible way to assess its extent. The data we have suggests around 300 Labour party members have had credible complaints of antisemitism made against them. No doubt the way the Labour party deals with these complaints should be improved. But 300 out of nearly half a million is not a large number. A recent nationwide poll of what voters thought put the proportion at 1 in 3, which is over 500 times too large. It is the same phenomenon as people hugely overestimating the extent of welfare fraud, and indicates the sheer amount of press misreporting of the issue. Labour is not riddled with antisemitism, but the media is riddled with reports of Labour antisemitism that lead people to think it is.

Has Corbyn or his team interfered with the complaints procedure. We shall find out from the EHRC, but I would be pleasantly surprised if they hadn’t. It is what politicians do, unfortunately. For just one example, see the Lord Rennard affair for the LibDems. That does not excuse Corbyn’s reluctance to deal with this issue, which is in some ways the consequence of his uncritical attitude to people he sees as allies I noted above.

The election

To say that Labour and Corbyn should have been more proactive in dealing with the issue is one thing. To suggest that should influence the way people vote is another. Voting is always about comparisons. If anyone uses Labour’s antisemitism problem as a reason for not voting tactically to prevent a Johnson government, then they have to make comparisons between parties and not look at Labour in isolation. Our next Prime Minister will be Johnson or Corbyn. Which has the better record on racism?

Just compare how Labour has dealt with antisemitism to how the Tories have dealt with Islamophobia. Did the Tories adopt a code to help assess whether statements were Islamophobic, like the IHRA code now adopted by Labour? No. (Labour’s reluctance to initially adopt all the IHRA examples was a serious political mistake, even if it was done for understandable reasons.) Do we know all the statistics about the complaints there have been about Islamophobia in the Tory party? No. 

Baroness Warsi, ex-chairman of the Tory party, said recently the climate for Muslims in the her party was hostile. While Corbyn has made no racist statements, the same cannot be said about Johnson. One longstanding Muslim Conservative left the party when Johnson was elected. Even if you think Johnson is not a racist, what he says empowers those who are, which is why attacks against Muslims rose after he called some Muslim women letterboxes.

This does not mean that we should ignore Labour’s very real antisemitism problem, still less stop putting pressure on Labour to get things right. Labour cannot use the obvious bias in the media as an excuse for inaction. All political parties will contain racists of some sort and those parties will require constant pressure to expose and end it. But to suggest we should prefer Johnson to Corbyn as our next PM because of Labour’s antisemitism is complete nonsense. Labour have an antisemitism problem which they are dealing with, and the Tories have an Islamophobia problem which they are trying to ignore. Unlike Corbyn, Johnson has made a number of racist statements.

I know feelings run high on this issue. Based on past evidence I know that some people will say I must be antisemitic to suggest Corbyn is not. But the real tragedy here is that serious antisemitic attacks are on the rise across the world. Among the population the far right is far more antisemitic than the far left, and the physical attacks come from the extreme right rather than from the left. Rather than focus on a party leader who as far as we know has never made an antisemitic statement in his life, we should be focusing on fighting the far right, and those in the Conservative party who seem happy to tolerate, and use, racism to gain themselves votes.


Friday, 8 November 2019

The differences between Labour and the Conservatives on fiscal policy


The Conservatives have learnt the lesson of 2017, and have ditched austerity in order to offer higher spending to the electorate.They hope voters decide that there isn't much difference between the two parties on this score. But voters would be wrong to do so. In Labour's case the extra spending is sustainable, whereas for the Tories it will not be. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the Tories are not proposing large tax increases, while Labour almost certainly will - in the last election corporation taxes and taxes on high earners. (In 2017 the IFS suggested their match between extra current spending and higher taxes wasn’t perfect, but they agreed Labour would keep within its fiscal rule, which is what matters.) That means for a given fiscal stance Labour should have more money to spend on non-investment public spending than the Conservatives. And, assuming there is no collapse in demand ahead, their fiscal stance is now similar. (If there is a collapse, see below).

The second reason is Brexit. The Tories have negotiated a very hard Brexit, leaving the Customs Union and Single Market. I have argued that Brexit will not happen under Labour, but even if it did a much softer Brexit means less economic damage. Soft or no Brexit means higher incomes under Labour which in turn means higher taxes, and so higher spending.

What the Tories are counting on is that analysis by the IFS and others of the two party's programmes will ignore the second difference, and use a common baseline (as the Resolution Foundation does here). Once you factor in Brexit, the Tories extra spending is unlikely to be sustainable. They willl be forced to raise taxes or cut spending to keep to their current balance target. It will be even worse if Johnson throws in some last minute tax cuts in a desparate attempt to ensure he gets a majority. The OBR might have shown all this in its budget forecast, but the budget was conveniently postponed.

Not only will Labour spend more on day to day government expenditure, but they also plan a much more radical increase in public investment spending. Whether you think that is a good idea will depend on how seriously you take the need for a Green New Deal, how much you want to reduce regional inequalities and how much social housing you want the government to build, among other things. That will mean more borrowing under Labour, but public investment of this kind should be financed by borrowing. No one should argue we cannot invest to reduce climate change because it means borrowing more!

Those are the headlines from yesterday. The rest is only of interest to those who worry about fiscal rules. For the details of what each party's new rules are I'm relying on this account by the Resolution Foundation.

1) Both Conservaives and Labour are now targeting the current balance: the deficit minus net public investment. The Tories have given up Osborne's foolish move to target the total deficit, and like Labour's Fiscal Credibility rule will not constrain investment in the deficit part of the rule. There are two differences. Labour targets the current balance five years ahead using a rolling target, whereas the Tories will target it three years ahead with no rolling target. I argue in my paper with Jonathan Portes that in a mature economy with a fiscal council like the OBR a rolling 5 year target makes more sense, because it is more robust to shocks just at the end of the target period.

2) Labour's Fiscal Credibility Rule departed from the suggestions in that paper by having a target for debt. The big change in this election is that this is replaced by a target that includes government assets as well as liabilities, a suggestion that both the Resolution Foundation, INET and the IFS’s Green Budget have made. If you are going to have a stock target (see below) this type of target makes more sense. The Tories have a weak and conventional 'falling debt/GDP' target.

3) Both rules appartently include limits for debt interest in relation to taxes. I'm even less keen on these than debt targets, but they have been suggested by others.

4) Labour’s Fiscal Credibility Rule has a knockout that occurs when interest rates hit their lower bound. This was a key proposal in my paper with Jonathan Portes, and as a result Labour's rule was ahead of its time. When interest rates hit their lower bound, the fiscal rule would be temporarily suspended and fiscal policy would focus on an economic recovery. When John McDonnell launched his rule in 2016 one BBC reporter called the knockout a loophole, despite the fact that it would have created a much faster and quicker recovery and avoided austerity! Other than that mediamacro hardly discussed the knockout.

Since 2016, however, first the IPPR, then INET and then the Resolution Foundation have suggested very similar knockouts, reflecting a growing consensus that fiscal stimulus will be needed for the next recession. In another post I might discuss the small differences between these different knockouts, but the principle is the same and kind of obvious - if conventional monetary policy can no longer do its job fiscal policy should take over. But as we are not yet at this lower bound, Labour were quite right in 2017 not to base policy on the knockout happening, and I suspect they will do the same again in this election. As far as I know there is no knockout in what the Conservatives' propose.

The difference between the rule suggested in Portes and Wren-Lewis and the Fiscal Credibility Rule is that the latter initially contained a target for total debt, and now contains a target for public sector net wealth. While the latter is a definite improvement on the former, I personally think targets for any kind of stock in a fiscal rule are a bad idea. The reason to target the deficit rather than debt is basic to fiscal rules. Adjustment of taxes and spending should as far as possible be done slowly.

Suppose some temporary fiscal shock raises both the deficit and debt. Because the shock is temporary, there will be no impact on future deficits. At most debt interest payments may rise slightly, requiring some very tiny increase in taxes or cut in spending. Debt will gradually fall back to its pre-shock level. That is smooth adjustment. However with a debt target you need a much bigger adjustment in taxes or spending to get the debt stock down within the target period. Exactly the same logic applies to permanent fiscal shocks.

This is the basic logic of preferring deficit target to debt targets This is not to say that the debt ratio or some other stock measure are not important, but they should guide what deficit targets should be, and not be targets themselves. An analogy is a road trip where you are delayed by some congestion. A sensible person does not start taking risks by driving very fast to make up for lost time as quickly as possible, but instead think how they can make up the time gradually over the entire journey. As no one has any good idea of what the optimum level of debt is, the journey in this case is decades not 5 years.

There is a technical argument that you should target both if your deficit target is the current balance, which excludes investment. If that is so, and it should be so, then in theory without some form of debt target the government could increase debt without limit by keeping investment very high. My response is that, if this really is a worry (has it ever happened in the UK over the last 50+ years?), have a target or limit for the investment to GDP ratio, as the new Conservative fiscal rule does. In this one respect I think their rule is better than Labour's, if you ignore their silly change in debt target! An investment target would avoid the dangers of having a stock target.

It would be much more sensible in my view to have just a current balance deficit target, which is occasionally revised after suggestions by the OBR in light of movements in various measures of government debt and wealth. In their recent Green Budget the IFS are very pessimistic, suggesting fiscal rules will never last a long time. I think there is a simple reason for this, and that is that rules generally contain some form of debt target. But they seem very popular with politcians in all countries, and many of those that advise them, which alas may mean fiscal rules may not be as robust as they could be.

Postscript (12/11/19)

I saw it suggested yesterday that you could ignore the points I make here because I once advised the Labour party (that role ended in 2016). Over the last decade I have advised all three of the main parties on various issues. I believe it is an economist's duty to give politicians their expertise if asked, with very mild conditions set out here. Giving that advice on technical issues should never be mistaken for being partisan, just as economists should never let their own political views influence the advice they give on these issues. 

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

LibDem fantasies about the December election


There is one fact that too many people are currently in denial about. If Labour stay roughly where they are in the opinion polls then Johnson will lead a majority Conservative government from 2020 until 2025. We will either get his hard Brexit deal, or something worse. No ifs or buts, no caveats. It is just impossible for him not to win.

Could a realistic LibDem surge at the expense of the Tories prevent that? The short answer is no. There are just not enough seats that they can win. A realistic objective is for them to get another 20 seats, with a few more if they do really well. That is just not enough to offset the much bigger losses that Labour would make to the Conservatives if Labour continued with its current polling.

This would be just a repeat of the failure of the SDP in 1983. At that general election, the SDP–Liberal Alliance won more than 25% of the national vote, close behind Labour's 28%, and well behind the 44% secured by the Conservatives. The Alliance was rewarded with only 23 MPs. There are just too many very safe Conservative and Labour seats.

Could the Brexit party make it a four party election? I very much doubt it. With a Brexit deal already having been agreed with the EU and given a second reading by the old parliament, Johnson is now in a much stronger position. How many Brexit voters are going to put Brexit at risk by voting for Farage? In truth what we have at the moment approximates what Johnson always wanted, which is an election where the Remain vote is split by far more than the Leave vote

In addition the LibDems are already some way behind Labour in the polls. Here are the polls for the Sunday papers reported by @BritainElects.

You Gov:                  Lab 27% LD 16%
ComRes:                 Lab 28% LD 17%
DeltaPoll:                 Lab 28% LD 14%
ORB:                       Lab 28% LD 14%
OpiniumResearch   Lab 26% LD 16%

The numbers speak for themselves. The gap between the LibDems and Labour is only likely to increase as the media coverage of the General Election focuses on the two main parties.

Remainers last hope is for Labour’s poll position to improve. Without that improvement, Brexit is inevitable. All the effort and the marches and petitions will have been for nothing. This is the tragedy that Labour’s stubbornness on Brexit over the summer has created. The truth that too many Remainers refuse to acknowledge is this. If they are to have any hope of avoiding Brexit, many of those who switched from Labour to the Liberal Democrats or Greens at the European elections will have to switch back again, at least until after the General Election.

There is nothing new about this. It has always been the case that Remain could not succeed without Labour. There are some who say Labour’s plan for a People’s Vote (PV) on a softer Brexit versus Remain will fail to satisfy those that want a harder Brexit, and so will not stop Brexit re-emerging. But nothing will satisfy those wanting a hard Brexit, who also think a PV is illegitimate. They will only take part in a referendum that they are sure to win. The brutal reality for Remain centrists is that the Tories have become the party of Brexit and are not going to give that up until they realise it has become political suicide. A Labour government would be the first step on the road to making Brexit toxic, by pacifying moderate Brexiters with a PV and then after an inevitable Remain victory having four years of government when Brexit wasn’t mentioned.

Over the last year there have been crucial battles that have involved pushing the Labour party further towards a Remain position, and crucially getting them to commit to a PV. People tell me that they voted Labour in 2017 and had their vote counted as supporting Leave, and they will not be fooled again. But that is all about those battles to shift Labour. Labour’s position, guaranteeing a PV on a softer Brexit vs Remain, ensures Brexit will not happen, because no one in today’s Conservative party will support a soft Brexit. The battles with the Labour leadership over the summer were won, and it is now time to regroup for the final battle of this war. If people keep obsessing with these battles of the past they will inevitably lose the war.

It is a final battle that can be won. One of the things that surprised me when I looked at the numbers was that there were at least as many close marginals from 2017 that the Conservatives could lose to Labour as there were close marginals for Labour to lose to the Tories. If Labour can slightly improve on their 2017 performance, by more tactical voting or better targetting or whatever, they can flip just under 40 seats from the Conservatives to Labour. That does not give them an overall majority but it does make them the largest party and gives them the ability to govern as a minority government reasonably effectively.

Just as a small Labour improvement on 2017 can get a minority Labour government, equally there are 30 odd seats that Labour could lose if their performance slightly undershoots 2017. At best that might be offset by LibDem gains from Tories and results in Scotland, leaving the overall position largely unchanged from today. With the Tory rebels gone Johnson could get his Brexit deal through parliament. Nothing would have been gained but Brexit will have been lost. If we are lucky he will not quite get a majority for that, but a Tory government will do anything to stop a People’s Vote on Johnson’s deal unless he is certain he can win. So the best result we can hope for if Labour fails to achieve its 2017 vote is stalemate with another election soon to follow.

The reality of this election, which too many people refuse to accept, is that the only way of stopping Brexit is a minority Labour government. It requires many Remainers to switch their position from support for the LibDems to support for Labour in Labour marginals. The role of the LibDems in this election is essentially to capture as many Tory seats as they can, which will help the formulation of a minority Labour government. If instead they spend their time attacking Labour rather than the Tories, they will have played a key role in enabling Brexit. The idea that in this election the LibDems can win 200 seats or even form the next government is a dangerous fantasy worthy of any Brexiter.


Saturday, 2 November 2019

Tactical voting advice for December 2019


According to a survey commissioned by the Electoral Reform Society, around a quarter of voters plan to vote tactically in the forthcoming General Election. That is a lot of voters, although I would argue the number should be higher. This raises the obvious question, which is who should I vote for in my constituency?

For many it is a good question, because the current polls suggest that the result is not obvious. Take, for example, the seat of Kensington in London. If you look at the last election the answer seems obvious. In 2017 Labour just won with just over 42.2% of the vote, with the Conservatives on just under 42.2%. The LibDems got just over 12% and the Greens 2%. So if you are inclined to vote LibDem or Green it seems obvious to vote Labour.

There is a website that effectively tells you that. Tactical vote 2019 tells you who won your seat last time, and then tells you who to vote for to ensure the Tories do not win. This website is slightly more sophisticated in allowing you to enter your party preferences in rank order, but for Kensington, when I put in LibDem as first choice, it also tells you to vote Labour. There may be other sites I’m not aware of.

But there is a problem. The current polls are very different from 2017. Taking the latest poll tracker from the Guardian Labour now have 25% of the vote, down from 40% in 2017. The Liberal Democrats are now on 17%, which is over double their 2017 performance of 7.4%. Apply those differences to the Kensington vote and the LibDems have a very small lead over Labour, with the Tories winning comfortably.

Best for Britain (B4B) has just launched its tactical voting site that tries to take into account this change in the polls. (I’m not sure if this is instead of or in addition to the People’s Vote’s tactical voting exercise.***) It is more sophisticated than that, because it also applies multilevel regression and post stratification to map national or regional polling into seats. Either because of different timing or different polls, or because of this additional analysis, it suggests that current polling would imply an even bigger LibDem lead in Kensington. As a result, B4B gives a tactical voting recommendation to vote LibDem.

As you can see from the link I wasn’t too happy when I saw this. I am still not happy, but I think as a result of conversations and more thought I’m clearer about what the problem is with what B4B are doing. Needless to say there was a lot of negative reaction to their launch: see here, and here are just some examples. It is completely wrong to think such a reaction is predictable so B4B shouldn’t worry about it. To get people to vote tactically you have to persuade them it is the right thing to do, when they might naturally vote for a different party. (I did hope to do a more systematic analysis of the match between analysis and recommendations, but B4B did not respond to my request for a full list of these.)

This was the major failing of B4B. It looked too much like “the computer says”, with no explanation of why the numbers they came up with are what they are, and why B4B were or were not just following them. There were a number of obvious things they could have done better. First, they could have given the national percentages for the poll on which the analysis was based, so we could see how that related to current polling. This is particularly important given the wide and systematic (i.e. persistent) spread between polling companies right now, due to how they treat their data.

Next, they could have given some indication of why any constituency swing was bigger or smaller than the average swing implied by the numbers they were using. Put the two together and I might have some idea why their predicted swing, towards the LibDems and away from Labour, was greater than the one I calculated earlier. Let me stress that I am not doubting the methodology or implying bias. It is simply that if you are going to persuade people to vote in a way they would rather not, you have to do more than just say "the computers says" and it has worked in the past. You have to give people some understandable reasons.

However, even if it had done all this, I still think its recommendation is wrong. We saw in 2017 that the polls can change dramatically. You can certainly give plausible reasons why that could happen again. Given that uncertainty, the call I would have made for Kensington is ‘too close to call’ at this stage. Anything else will only lead to trouble when you are recommending voting against a sitting Labour MP this distance from the election. (For some of the factors peculiar to Kensington, see this from Ailbhe Rea.)

It would have been much better if B4B had kept its options open in places like Kensington, and instead focused on seats where who to vote for tactically was much clearer (like Canterbury or St. Ives), and in particular on the subset that could make a difference to the result. That would have been far more useful, and less contentious, and actually helped the cause of tactical voting at this early stage. If Labour’s position in the polls improved compared to the LibDems, as it could well do, they will avoid looking foolish. If the polls don’t move or move the other way, they will have broken Labour voters in to the idea of voting LibDem gently.

Does the criticism of B4B invalidate the idea of tactical voting? Of course not. Tactical voting is probably the only thing that can save us from five years of a Johnson government and a very hard or no trade deal Brexit. What it shows is that in a few places, who to vote for at this very early stage in the campaign is unclear. If you happen to be in those constituencies, all I can suggest is watch this space. 

***Postscript (03/11/19) This article describes what happened to the independent People's Vote tactical voting campaign. 

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Journalists’ own pact with the devil


While Dominic Cummings is no genius, he does have a good understanding of how the UK media works, and therefore how to manipulate it. There are many ways to do this, but one of the most obvious is to use privileged access in return for uncritical coverage. This is how it works.

One of the prizes journalists most aspire to is being first with the news. To get an ‘exclusive’ story. In the political world the biggest generator of news stories is the government. This gives the government the potential to act as the devil to which journalists can sell their souls to. The value of access increases when the government reduces the amount of information it supplies for free in other places like parliament. The price journalists pay to be given privileged access to news, or more generally some insight in government strategy, is to report what is fed to them without the critical eye that this same journalist might normally apply to this information if it was released publicly.

Of course not all journalists are prepared to do this. But if their personal views are sympathetic to the government, or more importantly if their employer likes to take lines that are helpful to or supportive of the government, it is much easier to sell your soul in this way. It is a phenomenon that all journalists understand, and it is an art that all governments practice to some extent. What is now clear is that Dominic Cummings is willing to buy as many souls as he can to counter bad news or his own mistakes.

The result is that some journalists that have not sold their souls have begun to speak out about what is going on. One is (not surprisingly) Peter Oborne, who details here (HT Jon) many of the (often false) stories that Cummings has generated which have allowed the press and the BBC to hide bad news for the government. (Short interview version here.) Perhaps more surprising is this from Adam Boulton of Sky News, who effectively supports Oborne and adds another example from the BBC. He writes
“In 25 years as Sky News' political editor I never sought favours and was never given them, perhaps because I worked for challenger companies rather than the legacy duopoly of ITV and BBC. I am expressing a personal view here, not speaking on behalf of Sky News. But I can confirm that I and my Sky News colleagues still work with the same "no favours" impartiality.”

My personal impression that Sky journalists are better in this respect than the BBC in particular is backed up by the latest Ofcom survey (figure 11.5), where Sky News does better than the BBC on being accurate, trustworthy, and particularly unbiased. However such surveys may be distorted by the huge campaign in the Brexit press to suggest the BBC is biased.

That journalists from particular right wing newspapers act as agents for a right wing, pro-Brexit government should hardly be a surprise. You only need to look to the same newspapers' coverage of the Johnson domestic incident earlier this year to see this in operation. But these newspapers power becomes much stronger when the line they take is not contradicted by the broadcast media.

The BBC is who really matters here, as it is watched by far more people for news than Sky, which makes what the BBC does much more important than anything Sky does. The importance of the BBC is underlined by a new report by Dr.Richard Fletcher and Meera Selva for Oxford’s Reuters Institute. It shows that Leavers are less likely to use non-MSM sources than Remainers. Equally, few Leavers rely on their pro-Brexit newspaper alone: they also typically watch the BBC. Indeed 51% of Leavers say the BBC is their main source of news, with just 30% saying their main source comes from online, while the equivalent figures for Remainers is 38% and 45% respectively. This is not too surprising given that Leavers tend to be older and Remain voters younger.

The report interprets the importance of the BBC for Leave voters as implying they get their news from one impartial source. I would dispute that. Of course the BBC is not a shameless propaganda organisation of the kind we see in the Brexit press, but instead it works to support the Leave case in a number of subtle and not so subtle ways. Many of these are detailed by one of the best Brexit commentators around, Chris Grey.

I have argued many times before (see here for example) that during the referendum the BBC acted in a way that was very helpful to Leave by treating their (obvious) lies as opinions, to be balanced against the opinions (which happened to be truths) of the Remain side. The BBC most often excluded experts, and when they were included they were balanced with someone from the Leave side. This is a view shared not only be nearly all economic, trade and legal experts, but also some journalists e.g. Peston quoted here. That continued after the result. Claims made by the Leave side, and by the government, that were at least questionable would often go unquestioned.

Some of this comes from simple ignorance. The BBC has some very good journalists who understand the issues around Brexit, like like Katya Adler who reports on the view from Brussels, but most prime airtime is given to political generalists who at least appear not to understand the issues involved. I remember the moment that Johnson finally got his deal with the EU. Laura Kuenssberg gushed that few people had thought it possible to get a deal, while it was left to Katya Adler to explain that Johnson had essentially just accepted the first proposal put forward by Brussels over a year ago. No one asked why Johnson had effectively accepted a deal that his predecessor had said no UK PM could make.

Some of this apparent ignorance comes from perceived necessity. The pressure from the Brexit press and Leave politicians on the BBC is relentless, and there is little to balance this on the Remain side. The obvious conclusion that too many BBC journalists draw is that keeping out of trouble means not giving Leave politicians a hard time. Some acute media observers like Roy Greenslade conclude that the BBC does a great job standing up to this pressure, and of course given this pressure it could be a lot worse, but I think it does take a toll.

The structural problem can be stated fairly easily. The Leave case is essentially fantasy. Beyond a concern about immigration the Leave side have nothing that can justify the great harm they intend to inflict on the UK economy. Yet when the Leave side talks about taking back control, few BBC journalists ask obvious questions, like what EU law that the UK voted against are the Leave side objecting too, or how can trade with countries we hardly trade with compensate for the trade we will lose with the EU? If the BBC allows the Leave fantasy bubble to remain unpricked, you are in effect giving credibility to that fantasy, which is to support it. Another way of making the same point is that the BBC has allowed the Leave side to control the Brexit narrative for three years.

Unfortunately the BBC’s problem goes beyond being cowed by fear of the Leave side, or the liberal guilt that Grey mentions. There is little doubt that some of those now working in the BBC are, consciously or otherwise, pushing the Leave cause. For example Question Time sometimes has audiences that are clearly unbalanced towards Leave, while its selection process is supposed to produce a more balanced audience. The number of appearances of Nigel Farage has raised questions.

A more specific instance was the BBC’s shameful attempt to first ignore and then attempt to rubbish the evidence on the Leave's referendum spending scandal, discussed in detail by Peter Jukes here. Or the unmediated coverage of Farage’s Brexit party launch that was the last straw for one BBC war reporter. Or Humphries on their flagship political radio programme. Or the reluctance to interview non-politicians involved in successful legal challenges to the government. Or the publicity they gave to recycled 'Economists for Free Trade' nonsense. And so on.

The BBC has an obvious way of refuting these claims. They could explain their behaviour over issues like 2016 referendum spending. They could commission independent research that looks at the kind of issue that I mention here. Just quoting YouGov polls that obviously reflect the Brexit press campaign against the BBC does not remove the evidence that the BBC is shifting its reporting in response to that pressure and in some cases actively supports the Leave side.